While â80s pop culture is largely remembered for its frivolity, the social unrest that stirred beneath the decadeâs 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 decadeâs defining acts were likewise geographical: Released in the U.S. in January of 1980, the Clashâs seminal London Calling ushered in a new decade with disgruntled punk rock from across the pond, while U2âs 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 eraâs biggest pop stars (Michael, Janet, Madonna) were transformed into cultural critics too, reflecting on poverty, race relations, and what Prince called âa big disease with a little name.â 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 conscienceâthey served as ours. Sal Cinquemani
100. Soul II Soul, Club Classics Vol. One
Less a product of its own decade than a prophecy of the next one, Soul II Soulâs 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 whatâs more impressive? That the albumâs classic singles (âFairplay,â âKeep On Movinâ,â and âBack to Lifeâ) donât sound anything like one another, or that, two decades of girl groups later, they still sound totally unique? Matthew Cole
99. Slick Rick, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick
Rapâs 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 Queenâs 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 Rickâs tales can fringe on vulgar and misogynistic, but his storytelling prowess is second to none. Huw Jones
98. X, Los Angeles
A punk-rock power duo making strong use of their male/female dynamic, Exene Cervenka and John Doe fronted Xâs 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 thatâs 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 albumâs cover. Jesse Cataldo
97. George Clinton, Computer Games
George Clintonâs solo debut begins, almost oddly, with the former Parliament and Funkadelic frontman putting on his clothes. But the songâs message is a naked one: the promise of a throw downâto bring on the funk, the soul, and the psychedelic like no oneâs business. What follows is an almost spotless blitzkrieg of jams that run the gamut from the rousing (âOne Fun at a Timeâ), to the poignantly metaphoric (âFree Alternationsâ), to the playfully infantile (âPot Sharing Totsâ). âLoopzillaâ is a master class in sampladelic overload, and the title tune suggests Kraftwerk put through a P-Funk filter, but itâs the synth-funk âAtomic Dogâ that remains the albumâs triumph, an unbelievably improvised totem to Clintonâs own stray cock strut, and one that makes a world without Adina Howard and Snoop Dogg seem impossible. Ed Gonzalez
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 Talkâs The Colour of Spring, however, stands as one of the bandâs most satisfying standalone albums, even though itâs a clear bridge between their origins in new wave and the post-rock of their later albums. Songs like âLifeâs What You Make of Itâ and âI Donât Believe in Youâ strike a perfect and often beautiful balance between Talk Talkâs 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 childrenâs choir. Jonathan Keefe
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 âemoâ wasnât around in 1985, though Richard Kellyâs use of the dreamy âHead Over Heelsâ in his frowny sci-fi teen-angst epic Donnie Darko paid back that particular favor with interest.) British synth-pop act Tears for Fearsâ follow-up to the critically acclaimed The Hurting may have seemed a sellout at the time, but heard anew today, the cathartic, shuffling hit âEverybody Wants to Rule the Worldâ seems like one of the great indictments of the materialism and false triumphalism of the decade. Eric Henderson
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 âSunday Bloody Sundayâ an instrument as refined as the violin takes turns playing electrical whip, wailing animal, and battle cry across the songâs marching protest beat. This is U2 at their angriest, each piece infused with a sense of dark urgency that reaches a frothy head on âNew Yearâs Day.â Bonoâs resolution, âI will begin again,â 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
93. The Fall, This Nationâs Saving Grace
This Nationâs 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 âBarmy,â âWhat You Need,â and âSpoilt Victorian Child,â the group strikes the perfect balance between bilious dirge and subversive pop, while âPaintworkâ is a charmingly tongue-in-cheek homage to â60s 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. Jones
92. My Bloody Valentine, Isnât Anything
Itâs easy to dismiss Isnât Anything as Loveless-lite, but My Bloody Valentine doesnât attempt anything quite as epic or ambitious on their debut as they would just two years later. But even when theyâre less grandiose, the shoegazing pioneersâ 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 thatâs capable of simultaneously soundtracking our most ethereal dreams and most violent nightmares. Isnât Anything beautifies all that should be ugly, and deserves a spot as a lo-fi masterpiece in its own right. Jones
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 1984âs Meat Puppets II was fully capable of doing on its own merits. âPlateau,â âOh, Me,â and âLake of Fireââthe three songs that Cobain performed with the bandâare especially alluring examples of the groupâs cowpunk formula, and they strike similar success with the alluring âWeâre Hereâ and endlessly infectious âThe Whistling Song.â And with instrumental tracks âAurora Borealisâ and âIâm A Mindless Idiot,â the group is still in excellent form, serving up front-porch psychedelica of the highest order. Jones
90. Metallica, Master of Puppets
In retrospect, Master of Puppets exists as a kind of rapid-fire last hurrah for Metallicaâs status as L.A.âs 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 itâs 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 isnât just Metallicaâs best album, itâs also their most heartfelt. Liedel
89. Talking Heads, Speaking in Tongues
If the title of the Talking Headsâ sixth album found them embracing their lyrical Dadaism with an almost religious zealotry, and if the titleâs mission statement is more than fulfilled in the likes of âMoon Rocksâ (âI ate a rock from the moon/Got shicked once, shocked twiceâ) and âGirlfriend Is Betterâ (where âStop making senseâ became a mantra), itâs also worth noting that the tunes were counterintuitively accessible like never before, no more so than âBurning Down the House,â which set fire to no wave and planted one of the many seeds for new wave. Henderson
88. 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 Tennantâs yawn could conceivably greet any DJ set that dares to drop âOne More Chanceâ or âHit Musicâ alongside, say, âThe Pleasure Principle.â Actually, Chris Loweâs synth lines make cheap sound posh and vice versa. Actually, you know what youâve done to deserve this, but are afraid to admit it. Actually, it isnât a sin, but itâs more fun if you think it is. Actually, itâs hiding in plain sight. Actually, none of your business. Actually, this is all precisely the point. Henderson
87. Tom Tom Club, Tom Tom Club
Bless Mariah for sampling âGenius of Loveâ or we may remember Tom Tom Club only as a kookier-than-Taking-Heads offshoot. The bandâs debut album, which shares a really messy loft in my medulla oblongata with BjĂ¶rk, 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 âWordy Rappinghood,â show why humorless white girls like Madonna should never take up the rap mantle, she and hubby Chris Frantzâs production proves to the Paul Simons of the â80s how to ebulliently transmute exotic sounds without whitening out their essence. Gonzalez
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 âSecondsâ still sounds sweeping and lush, while âI Am the Law,â with its bursts of rumbling bass and off-kilter harmonies, will never be anything but captivating. Thereâs 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. Cole
85. The Clash, Sandinista!
The succulent fat that drips from this spit-skewered, bloated pig of an albumâ36 tracks spanning two-and-a-half hours!âis 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 wonât notice. Truly an album without borders. Gonzalez
84. 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 Bambaattaaâs 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. âLooking for the Perfect Beatâ 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 Kraftwerkâs âTrans-Europe Expressâ and âNumbersâ (from the German groupâs Computer World), singlehandedly fathered both â80s Latin freestyle and the entire hip-hop genre as we know it. Cinquemani
83. 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 itâs the voice of an exorcist on âThe Jezebel Spiritâ or a nervous radio-show caller on âMea Culpa,â Brian Eno and David Byrne harness these disparate voices as the engines for a series of amazingly diverse tracks. Cataldo
82. Sonic Youth, EVOL
Jittery and eclectic, 1987âs EVOL stands far apart from the later, more cohesive Daydream Nation; itâs a difficult album thatâs 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 âIn the Kingdom #19,â 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 âMarilyn Moore,â adding to the weird collegial air of one of the groupâs strangest albums. Cataldo
81. R.E.M., Reckoning
Thereâs 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.âs catalogue. Itâs a matter of âimportanceâ versus âquality,â and, while Murmur certainly wins in the former category, thereâs a strong argument to be made that, song for song, Reckoning might be the better album, even if it is rightly overshadowed by its predecessorâs greater historical impact. Informed by the death of the bandâs close friend, photographer Carol Levy, Reckoning is focused on emotions of anger and regret, and itâs that focus that makes songs like âHarbourcoatâ and âSo. Central Rainâ some of the most captivating in R.E.M.âs embarrassingly rich catalogue. Keefe
80. The Clash, Combat Rock
âThis is a public service announcementâŠwith guitars!â The albumâs famous first words, and a perfectly concise summation of the Clashâs uniquely exuberant and stylish craft, their provocative blending of political provocation with eclectic musicality. Their evolution was such that they became catchier as their convictions became more dense, which may explain Combat Rockâs somewhat ill repute; there would be hits, and as such it was conceived, wrongly, as a sell out. To me, the stream of consciousness of âCar Jammingâ attests like few other Clash songs to Joe Strummerâs social consciousness, restless even when he was standing still. They saw rock, like fascist might, as a power, and so it is that their music feels as if it hits you with the force of a club or a boot to the face. Gonzalez
79. The Cure, Pornography
The general read on the Cureâs legacy has been unfairly reduced to music for mopey goth kids, which misses the breadth of the bandâs actual output. But itâs not like that reputation emerged from a vacuum: Thereâs Pornography, which opens with the line âIt doesnât matter if we all dieâ and then gets even more bleak from there. A thick, sludgy album that underscores its miserable bent with portentous arrangements that are brooding and uncompromising, Pornography peaks with âThe Figurehead,â on which Robert Smith outlines his vision of hell in unflinching detail. The themes may be dire, but Smith elevates his unrelenting pain into real art. Keefe
78. The Bangles, Different Light
Itâs telling that, in a decade dominated by men, the first all-girl band to top the Hot 100 (with the kitschy âWalk Like an Egyptianâ) featured a name, lush harmonies, and guitar riffs that all hark back to the 1960s. The caveat to their accomplishment, of course, is that producer David Kahne infamously excised drummer Debbi Peterson from the track. The albumâs biggest hits were written by other people (including the somewhat out-of-place yet nonetheless hard-to-resist âWalk Like an Egyptianâ and the Prince-penned opener âManic Mondayâ), but itâs the simple sophistication of the songs composed by the band themselves, like the rollicking title track and the haunting acoustic ballad âFollowing,â that makes Different Light more than simply a collection of Top 40 hits from a bygone era, but one of that eraâs best pop albums. Cinquemani
77. Minutemen, Double Nickels on the Dime
The punk-rock scene was built on a discontented ethos, but it was often a challenge in itself to decipher just what bands like Black Flag and Minor Threat were raging against. Minutemen, though, always stood out for the lack of ambiguity in their mission statement, and Double Nickels on the Dime features D. Boon and Mike Wattâs fiercest social and political tirades. Whatâs more, given Wattâs propulsive basslines and Boonâs eclectic guitar work (shifting from soft Spanish-guitar interludes and shrill punk riffs with the greatest of ease), the album also boasts far tighter and more varied musicianship than anything they did before or after. Jones
76. Art of Noise, Whoâs Afraid of the Art of Noise?
âIn the nineteenth century, with the invention of the machine, Noise was born,â wrote Luigi Russolo in a letter to fellow Italian futurist composer Balilla Pretella. And in the late 20th century, avant-garde electronic-pop collective Art of Noise, who took their name from Russoloâs famous essay, was born, concocting cacophonous collages of digital beats and samples that would influence an entire generation of knob twirlers. The groupâs 1984 debut opens with the proto-political âA Time for Fear (Whoâs Afraid),â portions of broadcasts from the U.S. invasion of Grenada building to industrial beats and a minimalist sub-bass that informed the work of future pioneers like BjĂ¶rk and Tricky. Surprisingly, itâs the albumâs least noisy track, the 10-minute instrumental chill-out âMoments In Love,â that truly veers off into some exhilaratingly strange, unexpected territory. Russolo would be proud. Cinquemani
75. Depeche Mode, Music for the Masses
Communication is a recurring theme on Depeche Modeâs landmark Music for the Masses, and from the sampled radio broadcast of âTo Have and to Holdâ to the collage of grunts and moans of âI Want You Nowâ and the use of chamber choirs on âSacredâ and âPimpf,â voices play a pivotal role in conveying Martin Goreâs missives of repentance and redemption. The high drama thatâs so often proven to be the bandâs Achillesâ heel works impeccably here, each song seguing effortlessly into the next, each histrionic verse and melodramatic key change aiding in the creation of a bona-fide pop-rock opera. While the bandâs music wouldnât truly meet the masses until 1990âs Violator, Music for the Masses stands as an early masterpiece of the synth-pop genre. Cinquemani
74. Cocteau Twins, Treasure
No, you still canât make out a damn thing that Elizabeth Frazer sings on Treasure. But you donât need to: Her rolling, ululating syllables impart the kind of feelings that verbal communication is notoriously ill-suited for, and besides, when she swoops between the extremes of her range on a devastating number like âLorelei,â youâll swear youâre speaking her language. Robin Guthrieâs hypnotic guitar playing, by turns majestic and muscular, is everything that dream-pop guitar should beâif not for My Bloody Valentine, maybe all it ever would be. Critics sometimes protested that the Cocteau Twins shouldnât really be considered a rock band at all, and thatâs fine by me: When âDonimoâ closes the album with operatic splendor, itâs clear that theyâre something far more special. Cole
73. HĂŒsker DĂŒ, Zen Arcade
With 1984âs Zen Arcade, HĂŒsker DĂŒ married their fast and furious brand of punk with swirling psychedelica, elaborate noise arrangements, and a newfound melodious side. Bob Mouldâs cacophonous solos and treble-heavy riffing are raw and intense, while his sullen acoustic jams are gorgeous in their own melancholic way, and he even gets raise-your-fist anthemic with âTurn on the News.â With all this sonic shapeshifting, and an exhausting 70 minutes on the clock, Zen Arcade is something of an operatic frenzy, one where violent forays of rapid-fire punk are set to eccentric and elaborate structures. Jones
72. Sonic Youth, Sister
Overshadowed both critically and commercially by its successor, Daydream Nation, Sonic Youthâs Sister is the last great punk album of the Reagan era and the first great pop album to emerge from the American underground. The chiming, bending guitars of âSchizophreniaâ interject a gorgeous haze into a sad, understated song about a friendâs crazy sister that immediately signaled a new era in the bandâs development. Across the album, tightly interwoven textures of machine noise, feedback, and distortion are balanced out by shimmering harmonics and unprecedented warmth. Sure, the album still seethes with disaffection, but the avant garde never sounded so inviting. Cole
71. Kate Bush, The Dreaming
As far as 1980s female-centric performance-art-cum-mutant-pop goes, Kate Bush is the explosive sensualist against Laurie Andersonâs cool, detached yogi. Years removed from the idyllic anticipation of âThis Womanâs Work,â The Dreaming is a violently singular work that places its creatorâs emotions in their most natural environment: inscrutable and volatile. Each song, from the pedagogically impatient âSat in Your Lapâ to the trap-door hysterics of âGet Out of My House,â is a Joyce-worthy confluence of footnotes-to-be, and the key keeps getting tantalizingly passed between tracks via Bushâs darting tongue. Henderson
70. Lou Reed, New York
A poison-pen letter to his hometown, Lou Reedâs New York devotes itself to rapidly fading objects, things that always seem to be in danger, from blue whales to the familiar nature of a city. Obsessed with the soiled underside of mid-â80s NYC, acting as a grimy catalogue of police shootings, bigotry, and murder, Reedâs last great album also contains a fair sprinkling of affection. His love for the manifold details and innate possibilities of this complicated place is never more intact than on âHalloween Parade,â which documents the annual Greenwich Village tradition with a tender eye for minutiae, depicting a city that slips into a different costume every day. Cataldo
69. The Smiths, Strangeways, Here We Come
Whether or not Strangeways, Here We Come ended the Smithsâs brief career with their best album has been the subject of considerable debate for nearly a quarter century, but it definitively stands as the bandâs most lush, richest work. Johnny Marrâs signature guitar work is at its most varied and widest-ranging here, and, thanks to producer Stephen Street, the contributions of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyceâs rhythm section are actually given the chance to shine, which was rarely the case on the bandâs first three albums. Morrissey, for his part, contributes lyrics that are dense and heady, steeped in imagery of death that reflects the demise of one of modern rockâs most influential bands. Keefe
68. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Get Happy!!
In the saga of the punk-rock upstart who shocked critics by going all Lennon-McCartney on their asses, the blue-eyed soul of Elvis Costelloâs Get Happy!! is typically considered a genre detour, more like 1981âs country-themed Almost Blue than the classic pop triumvirate of Armed Forces, Trust, and Imperial Bedroom. But you need only compare it to Young Americans, Bowieâs misguided stab at R&B from five years earlier, to see how sincerely Costello inhabits the styleâs past and present. Costello may have set out to show how much he knew about soul, but what he actually proved was how much he loves it. Cole
67. XTC, Skylarking
The story behind the recording of XTCâs 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 Partidgeâs more twee impulses and Colin Mouldingâs grounded, dry wit, while Rundgrenâs on-point production splits the difference between the bandâs Pet Sounds inspiration and new waveâs bounce. Even when the band explores headier themes, such as the working-class disaffect on standout âEarn Enough for Usâ and the potent defense of atheism on minor-hit single âDear God,â their melodies are outsized and sunny. Skylarking might not have been fun to record, but itâs still a blast to listen to. Keefe
66. The Replacements, Tim
On the continuum of â80s rock acts with a pronounced rock nâ roll influence, the Replacements fall somewhere on the spectrum between Bruce Springsteen and the Mekons, styling a skuzzy blend of mutated rockabilly that absorbs and adapts â50s tropes with propulsive glee. Thereâs a glimmer of punk attitude in all of Timâs hurtling songs, but each one is too piercingly romantic and sincere to fit into that genre; witness âKiss Me on the Bus,â which caps off with a joyous wave of sleigh bells. The result is a collection of booming love songs that find the spirit of the adventure in the most domestic of settings. Cataldo
65. Run-D.M.C., Raising Hell
It wasnât the album that made hip-hop âsafeâ to white, middle American audiences (that didnât come along until M.C. Hammerâs Please Hammer, Donât Hurt âEm), but Run-D.M.C.âs 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 groupâs cover of Aerosmithâs âWalk This Wayâ discovered the depth of sound, purposeful use of samples, and razor-sharp wordplay that made the mid-â80s rap musicâs golden age. Keefe
64. Pretenders, Pretenders
The Pretendersâ debut is notable not only for the pitch-perfect execution of the bandâs glam-meets-punk style, but also its delivery of unconventional sex appeal. Like Debbie Harry before her, Chrissie Hynde represented a feminization of the punk aesthetic, a street-smart girl who could outdrink, outperform, and ultimately outsmart her male counterparts. Rock feminism never sounded as good as it does here, particularly on tracks like the spunky âBrass in Pocket,â where Hynde has the power to be playful, tough, and even self-deprecating without sacrificing any of her throaty vocal presence. At its core, rock nâ roll is about charisma, and as tracks like âStop Your Sobbingâ and âPrivate Lifeâ prove, the Pretenders not only had a cache of the stuff, but were well-versed in how to showcase it. Liedel
63. Tina Turner, Private Dancer
Like another mega-successful pop monster, Michael Jacksonâs Thriller, Private Dancer is a staggering display of self-affirming artistry and vocal expression. For Turner, who was 45 when the album was released, it also represented a kind of vindication, with songs like the gritty, powerful âWhatâs Love Got to Do with Itâ and the sultry ultimatum âBetter Be Good to Meâ all but destroying the false pretense that she was somehow only fit to play second fiddle to Ike. Both a personal liberation and sonic redemption, Private Dancer established Turner not only as a genuine diva, but a bona fide force of nature. Liedel
62. George Michael, Faith
Written, arranged, composed, and produced by George Michael almost entirely by himself, Faith put the former Wham! singer in the same league, if not on the same team, as Prince, and its blockbuster status and franchise of hits gave the King of Pop a run for his money in the late â80s. The album fuses pop and R&B with funk and jazz elements (the three-part âI Want Your Sexâ alone traverses no less than four or five different styles), and just as the tracks are composed of a mix of canned Synclavier loops and live instruments, Michael himself is presented as one part slick lothario and one part socially conscious crusader. When he wasnât luring some young thing into his bed with gin and tonic and pleas of âc-c-c-come on,â the middle stretch of the album found him sounding off on such patented â80s signposts as materialism and heroin addiction. Cinquemani
61. Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense
Inseparable from Jonathan Demmeâs concert doc of the same name, arguably the finest concert film ever made, and subject to endless hemming and hawing among Talking Headsâ diehards for the elisions made to said concertâs set list when the soundtrack was being produced, Stop Making Sense remains a divisive album. A 1999 reissue rectified many of the most common complaints about the original release, nearly doubling the length of the album and restoring some continuity to the bandâs performance, but that takes nothing away from the fact that Stop Making Sense, even in its truncated original form, is a testament to one of the most compelling, forward-thinking bands of the rock era at the peak of their craft. Keefe
60. Madonna, True Blue
Sure, some of the production choices on True Blue sound chintzy and dated in comparison to those on Madonnaâs other â80s releases, but thereâs no getting around the fact that five of the albumâs 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. Itâs when she began manipulating her imageâand her audienceâwith a real sense of clarity and purpose and made sure she had quality songs to back up her calculation and world-dominating ambition. Keefe
59. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Imperial Bedroom
Imperial Bedroom can be a challenging listen at times, but the hooks and melodies are so beguiling and infectious that itâs about as close to pop as Costello has ever gotten. Thereâs a myriad of sounds and styles coalescing wonderfully throughout, and the quirky songwriter punctuates each of his sonic detours with jaunty badinage and pert observations. The album boasts some absolutely astonishing wordplay, with even its most personal harangues arriving veiled in clever allegories and razor-sharp double entendres. Despite its lackluster commercial performance, then, Imperial Bedroom affirms Costello as a poet laureate for the counterculture and a restless musical genius all in the space of 50 topsy-turvy minutes. Jones
58. Echo & the Bunnymen, Ocean Rain
Black-velvet rock with a distinct romantic bent, Echo & the Bunnymenâs fourth and best album, Ocean Rain, flirts with ridiculous excess but remains sturdily in check, anchored by Ian McCullochâs big, crooner-style voice. Never as silly as the gaudy goth luminaries that surrounded them, the band employs many of the same elements and flirts with similar deathly impulses, shaping a dreamy sound that utilizes a full orchestra to call up extravagant flourishes and explore pools of inky gloom, using tracks like âThe Yo-Yo Manâ to hint at dramatic excess without ever veering into outright theatricality. Cataldo
57. Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska
Strip the bombastic showmanship from Bruce Springsteenâs back-alley narratives, take away the E Street Band, and you get Nebraska, a fragmentary collection of four-track demos that ended up being viable all on its own. These embryonic shells place the lingering desperation that had always lied beneath the surface of his songs into sharp relief, from the killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate on the title track to the last-ditch liaison of âAtlantic City.â Incorporating such far-flung influences as Suicide, whose desperate whoops Springteen emulates on the grim, haunting âHighway Patrolman,â itâs a desolate sonic landscape thatâs leagues more progressive than anything he recorded before or after. Cataldo
56. Talk Talk, Spirit of Eden
Opener âThe Rainbow,â a deconstructed blues song splayed out over seven minutes, sets the perfect tone for Talk Talkâs Spirit of Eden, the songâs blown-out harmonica wheezing over barebones soft-jazz backing. The album presents a series of similarly deliberate excursions, whose sustained focus on individual elements, like the harmonica and rudimentary blues arrangement of that opening song, twists and transforms them. Despite the initial air of chilled-out simplicity, each of these songs is actually a twitching patchwork of carefully blended elements, with twinkling piano crawls that blossom into sustained electronic explosions, all bracketed by a mystical, quasi-religious style of lyrical wordplay. Cataldo
55. Kate Bush, The Sensual World
Itâs hard to pin down what makes Kate Bushâs music so completely infectious, but it probably has something to do with the reckless abandon with which she tackles what could otherwise be preposterous material. The topics on The Sensual World, ranging from a musical rendering of the epilogue of Ulysses to a love song directed at a computer program, are often wholeheartedly silly, and yet these songs never come off as anything less than totally and achingly believable. Blessed with one of musicâs most wildly expressive voices, Bush takes each song further than she has to, resulting in an album that forms its own unique world. Cataldo
54. 808 State, 90
If 90 was âPacific 202â and 30 minutes of tape noise, itâd still be a stone-cold classic. But 808 Stateâs signature song (here a truncated six minutes of sax, synth, and roiling, rubbery bass), is just the most successful condensation of the diverse sonic tendencies explored on 90. Paced like an excellent DJ set from guys whoâd spent enough time in the club to know, 90 doesnât build so much as it ebbs and flows between the assertively groovy and the totally blissed out. A thrilling expansion of the possibilities for acid house and arguably the best LP ever produced in the style, 90 shows that even a transient fad can be an impetus for world-making. Cole
53. Prince, Dirty Mind
Prince, unlike George Michael, doesnât feel the need to justify sex, that itâs natural, itâs good. Heâs content to let his dick do the talking, without apology. But Prince isnât simply shooting his dithering load on this 1980 breakthrough, heâs radically redefining sex, its expression and power. Just as the albumâs production is a succulently bouncy and interwoven tapestry of funk, pop, and rock, the wily Prince fearlessly and mischievously indulges fantasy and ambiguously adopts countless roles and personas, addressing throughout both his anima and animus. He will daydream of fucking some honey in his daddyâs car, getting head from another on her wedding day, but he will also sneak in glistening moments of doe-eyed romanticism, even a startlingly metaphoric commentary on race and class. This is liquid love in its purest and most thought-provoking form. Gonzalez
52. 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.âs case, they came pretty close to doing just that. Lifes Rich Pageant stands as a nearly seamless transition between the bandâs formative period and their commercial dominance. The ragged, frenetic energy of R.E.M.âs early work is captured on âJust a Touchâ and âThese Days,â while âFall On Meâ and their cover of the Cliqueâs âSupermanâ showcase a newfound emphasis on pop hooks. In striking that balance, Lifes Rich Pageant is a template for how the âalternativeâ music the band was largely responsible for originating would, less than a decade later, become the dominant narrative in the music industry. Keefe
51. The Smiths, The Smiths
Thereâs no reason why a mordant, sexually frustrated disciple of Oscar Wilde who loved punk but crooned like a malfunctioning Sinatra shouldâve teamed up with a fabulously inventive guitarist whose influences were so diffuse that it could be hard to hear them at all and formed one of the greatest songwriting duos of the â80s. On classics like âHand in Gloveâ (which had Morrissey outing himself before anyone had even thought to speculate about this sexuality) and âThis Charming Man,â Morrissey says a lot but always insinuates more. Though thatâs not the case on âSuffer Little Children,â a ghoulish retelling of a real-life tragedy in which five children were sexually abused and murdered. Its unforgettable refrain finds Morrissey channeling the ghosts of Britpopâs sacred city: âManchester, so much to answer for.â Cole
50. 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 âMost Likely to Shoot the Rest of Us Dead at Graduationâ 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? Thatâs what itâs like to listen now to Trent Reznor scowl, âIâd rather die than give you control!â in âHead Like a Hole.â 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
49. Tracy Chapman, Tracy Chapman
Both the pop music landscape and political climate of the â80s 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 Chapmanâs unassuming, self-titled debut laid bare the fundamental injustice and dishonesty behind the prevailing policies of the day; she wasnât just âTalkinâ About a Revolution,â she aimed to start one. But what makes Tracy Chapman more than just a leftist course-correction or an antidote to hair metal are Chapmanâs unabashed sincerity and empathy and the robust quality of her songwriting, which make songs like âFast Carâ and âBaby Can I Hold Youâ no less powerful or moving today. Keefe
48. Michael Jackson, Bad
Michael Jacksonâs Bad, perhaps the most highly anticipated album of all time, took the multi-format approach of 1982âs 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 albumâs 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
47. Eurythmics, Touch
If Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) proved that the Eurhythmics had mastered the new wave genreâs icy detachment and ironic distance better than just about anyone, Annie Lennox and Dave Stewartâs 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 itâs far more diverse in its style, leaning heavily on the soulfulness of Lennoxâs performances to keep its synth-pop aesthetic grounded in palpably human emotions. To that end, standout cuts like âWhoâs That Girlâ and the defiant âAquaâ confirm Lennoxâs status as one of pop musicâs most gifted, singular vocalists. Keefe
46. SinĂ©ad OâConnor, The Lion and the Cobra
The title of SinĂ©ad OâConnorâs debut was culled from Psalm 91, in which God promises to protect his people from the lion and the snakeâsymbols of bold and sly danger, respectively. OâConnor is more lion than snake, of course; she purrs like a kitten youâre fully aware is capable of lunging for your throat at any moment, and she often doesâshrieking at dead lovers, admonishing her countryâs leaders. The Lion and the Cobra is regal, majestic, and allegorical, an album rife with images of war, slain dragons, and ghosts, and itâs one of the most electrifying debuts in rock history. Cinquemani
45. Roxy Music, Avalon
Itâs not that the most common criticisms of Roxy Musicâs final album, Avalon, donât have merit: Itâs absolutely fair to acknowledge that itâs divorced from the truly progressive aesthetic that made the bandâs â70s-era output so vital and influential, and that the few members of the original lineup who still remained by the early â80s 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 canât mask some of Ferryâs 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
44. 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 âvery scary stories whose endings nobody knows.â But this metropolitan performance artist and borderline cat lady was scaring us as far back as Big Science, on which she asks, âWhat is behind the curtain?â Then and now, her humor is lacerating, her fondness for BPMs cheekily abstract, but most fetching are her articulations of powerlessnessâthat even she doesnât know whatâs 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, âO Superman,â an attack on American military might that begins almost sensibly with a mother leaving an embarrassing, existentially fraught message on her childâs answering machine. Like progress, Andersonâs music resists resistance. Gonzalez
43. Janet Jackson, Janet Jacksonâs Rhythm Nation 1814
âDonât get me in here acting all silly now.â 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 Controlâs redux debut is in equal measure self-enlightened, self-defining, and self-pleasuring. The title track and âThe Knowledgeâ lean heavy on new-jack beats, while âAlrightâ and âEscapadeâ radiate the Minneapolis sound at its warmest (she mustâve recorded them the one week it didnât 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 decadeâs biggest chartbusting juggernauts. Get the point? Good. Henderson
42. New Order, Movement
In Tibetan Buddhism, âbardoâ 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. âMovement,â however, works just as well, evoking the fluidity of Bernard Sumner and companyâs still-evolving sound. âDreams Never Endâ is an apt opener; itâs 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 Curtisâs than Sumnerâs does. The rest of Movement exists almost exactly in between Joy Divisionâs post-punk sound and the synth-pop style that would come to define New Order and influence pop music for decades. Cinquemani
41. Peter Gabriel, So
Home to the colossuses âRed Rain,â âSledgehammer,â âIn Your Eyes,â and âBig Time,â So is Peter Gabrielâs 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 NâDour join in on the melodious climax of âIn Your Eyes.â Notwithstanding its successful expansion of Gabrielâs sound, So succeeds on quirky offerings alone: Whatâs not to love about an album that features a duet with Kate Bush and a shakuhachi solo? Liedel
40. Grace Jones, Nightclubbing
In go Iggy Pop, David Bowie, the Police, Bill Withers, and Astor Piazzola. Out comes Grace Jones as though none of the others ever existed. (All right, Jonesâs dubby take on âUse Meâ is no patch on Withersâs original. A minor chink in the armor.) With backing from Sly & Robbie, Jonesâs Nightclubbing performs double duty, building up the singerâs legend even as it makes attempts at deconstructing it (as in âArt Groupie,â in which she enunciates âTouch me in a sculptureâ so that it sounds like âTouch penis sculptureâ). But the boogie masterpiece âPull Up to the Bumperâ removes such academicism from the table entirely. Henderson
39. The Replacements, Let It Be
In the rough and raw underbelly of hardcore punk, naming your LP after a seminal Beatles album and peppering it with coarse ballads and painfully intimate moments is certainly a brave move. But thatâs exactly what Paul Westerberg and company did on Let It Be, and that decision puts the accent mark on what is their strongest work by some stretch: âUnsatisfiedâ is a jagged ballad on which Westerberg howls his lungs out, while âAndrogynousâ is a tender, heart-on-the-sleeve piano number that finds the singer in equally gripping form. Make no mistake: The Replacements still fulfill their obligation to exhilarating punk jams, and the band is at their anthemic best on âI Will Dare,â but the albumâs really remarkable moments arrive whenever the group dares to leave their hardcore comfort zone. Jones
38. The Jesus and Mary Chain, Psychocandy
Shaping fuzz into a potent, tactile instrument, the Jesus and Mary Chain helped establish the style of distortion-laden fogginess that would eventually become the foundation for shoegaze. Possibly their most amorphously detailed album, and probably their best, Psychocandy buries snide and snotty vocals in a rolling sea of noise, an enormously effective approach thatâs still being imitated today. The musical backing may be spare, like the faint guitar shimmer and lonely hi-hat smack of âJust Like Honey,â or it may be dense, the roiling chaos of âIn a Hole,â but it remains effective throughout, leaving each song encased in a thick viscous shell. Cataldo
37. Guns nâ Roses, Appetite for Destruction
The Sunset Strip didnât spew the decadeâs noisiest music. It just produced the most popular noise. In some cases, the sound disguised an iffy supply of fury. Despite initially boasting what wouldâve been one of the most nasty-as-we-wanna-be covers ever attached to a diamond-selling blockbuster (Robert Williamsâs comic-strip panel depicting the aftermath of robot rape) before caving into retailer pressure, and beyond such liquor-soaked speed-metal anthems as âYouâre Crazyâ and âWelcome to the Jungle,â the bleeding heart at the center of âSweet Child oâ Mineâ proves Axl Rose was always one good bender away from getting all âNovember Rainâ on us. Henderson
36. Pixies, Surfer Rosa
The scary thing about Surfer Rosa is that the songs are so damn catchy youâre in danger of not only deciphering the initially incomprehensible lyrics, but of singing them out loud. Which is great, since âBone Machineâ has a memorable bridge about being molested by a priest, âBroken Faceâ is yet another terrific Pixies song dedicated to the inbred, and âCactusâ finds Black Francis missing his lover and wishing to slip into one of her wet, bloody dresses. But the hooks are as grotesquely powerful as the imagery, and against all odds the Pixies created some bizarrely poignant moments in unexpected places (like Fancisâs trippy scuba fantasy, âWhere Is My Mind?,â and Kim Dealâs âGiganticâ ode to the well-endowed), a fact which owes, more often than not, to Joey Santiagoâs endless supply of otherworldly guitar leads. Cole
35. Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A.
The ironic misinterpretation of Born in the U.S.A.âs title track has been well-documented, and persists as a rather inane flap as it pertains to the albumâs real import: Bruce Springsteenâs transformative leap from bar muse to blue-collar rock god. Born in the U.S.A. is chock-full of working-class anthems that fueled that metamorphosis, from burners like âIâm on Fireâ to the wistful âMy Hometown,â where the Boss sings of old Buicks, racial tensions, and the sting of economic downturn. Rounded out by the mixture of sex, magnetism, and poetry in âDancing in the Dark,â Born in the U.S.A. propelled Springsteen not only into a pop-radio staple in the â80s, but cast him as the voice of the disillusioned American everyman. Liedel
34. Pixies, Doolittle
Doolittle is their manifesto for â90s alt rock: dark, offbeat, slow-churning, humorously grim, and peppered with the kind of loud-soft dynamics that exemplify both the Pixiesâ sound and the countless bands that followed in their wake. Arriving in 1989, Doolittle served as vanguard for modern rock both sonically and tonally, as evidenced by the descriptive, almost metaphysical nature of the bandâs lyrics. When Black Francis screams, âGod is seven!,â on âMonkey Gone to Heaven,â thereâs little doubt about the gravity of the messageâor where Billy Corgan found his inspiration. Liedel
33. Madonna, Madonna
Few would deny that Madonna went on to pursue deeper goals than the simple pop perfection of Madonna. But any debut album that yields a âHolidayâ and a âLucky Star,â both released as singles in the span of two consecutive days (albeit an ocean apart), is still pretty untouchable. Wistful and eager to please, Madonnaâs sparkling ditties arenât so much âpost-discoâ as they are âdisco ainât going nowhere, so shut up and dance.â Like a heavenly body atop the surging underground currents of every synth-heavy dance subgenre that preceded her, Madonnaâs cultural co-opting is nothing if not fervent. Henderson
32. Eric B. & Rakim, Paid in Full
Many would argue that the late â80s was the absolute pinnacle for hip-hop, and itâs difficult to argue against Paid in Full being a benchmark of the era. Rakimâs methodical and meticulous approach to his delivery provides a stark contrast to that of his contemporaries, while his mastery of internal rhymes underlines his status as a superbly technical wordsmith. For his part, Rakim didnât need to rely on macho jargon and trite gangsterisms for his self-aggrandizing sermons; he would simply reel off line after line of spellbinding wordplay, influencing an entire decade of tongue-twisting MCs in the process. Jones
31. Janet Jackson, Control
The story goes that Papa Jackson warned producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, former members of the Time, not to make his daughter sound too much like Prince on her breakthrough album, Control. Not only did they fail, but they failed spectacularly. The keyboards and synth melodies on tracks like âWhat Have You Done for Me Latelyâ and âYou Can Be Mineâ are quintessential Minneapolis pop, but Jam and Lewis also previewed what would become their signature industrial beats and spliced-and-diced vocal treatments (which, it should be noted, is all the rage in indie pop today) on the title track. Janet would go on to release more âimportantâ albums (namely Rhythm Nation and The Velvet Rope), but track for track, Control is still her strongest. Her albums would get longer as her waistline got slimmer, but Control boasts little padding. Cinquemani
30. Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation
Itâs hard to think of a band that matched malice with infectiousness as well as Sonic Youth, that pulled of this tricky balance most adroitly on Daydream Nation, the shining capstone on a strong decade of experimentation. Combining consummate songcraft with the furthest reaches of noise, they end up with withering digressions like âSilver Rocket,â which derails its hooky, slithering guitar line to plunge into a two-minute-long sea of noise, and âTotal Trash,â which recalls Television with its rambling, seven-minute-plus exploration of a looping melody, buttressed by increasingly frantic walls of noise. Cataldo
29. Leonard Cohen, Iâm Your Man
Pop goes Leonard Cohen and it soars. I discovered this poet prophet through McCabe & Mrs. Miller, his deadpan baritone passing throughout Robert Altmanâs dreamy film like opium smoke. The almost synth-pop production of this 1988 masterwork, arguably his finest next to his stunning debut, would seem to be a terrible match for his customarily dense and nuanced lyricism. But Cohen has always been a man of many hats, and here he ballsily suffuses his pained declarations of romantic and spiritual desperation with a wryness thatâs matched almost subversively beat for beat by the sugariness of the background vocals. With great courage and conviction, the man turns a sermon into a cabaret. Gonzalez
28. The Stone Roses, The Stone Roses
In hindsight, The Stone Roses is essentially a lithe and sinuous greatest-hits album, a string of would-be singles blaring from the speakers of a Madchester baggy disco, dominating dance floors still reeling from the acid-house scene and the new-romantic era. Maniâs thundering basslines and John Squireâs kaleidoscopic guitar parts keep the sound firmly rooted in indie-rock territory, their anthemic refrains setting a number of Britpop trends in a heartbeat, while John Leckieâs psychedelic production won over pill-popping ravers en masse. The Stone Roses is an unashamedly British album, a love letter to its working classes and an ultraprecise predictor of what was on the horizon for Her Majestyâs airwaves in the â90s. Jones
27. David Bowie, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) catches David Bowie on the cusp of international megastardom and is widely regarded as the glam-rock iconâs last truly great album. Bowie bridles the experimentation of his Berlin trilogy and channels those synth flourishes and off-kilter guitar licks into one of the decadeâs quirkiest pop albums. âAshes to Ashesâ is absolutely mesmerizing, and âFashionâ almost sets the tone for the entire decade by itself, and even beyond these singles are countless examples of utterly flawless pop. That itâs difficult to even notice Brian Enoâs absence is a testament to how convincing this madcap milieu really is, and affirms Bowieâs reputation as the maharishi of avant-garde pop. Jones
26. Tom Waits, Swordfishbones
At the turn of the decade, lowlife laureate Tom Waits was well on his way to becoming an industry-vetted, Hollywood-normalized singer-songwriter. Think Randy Newman if Randy Newman wrote songs about hookers. Swordfishbones marks the beginning of a genius period, which, judged by last yearâs Bad As Me, isnât winding down anytime soon. Here, he trades barroom ballads for disorienting, percussive songs that sound like a junkyard come to life, and on âDown, Down, Downâ and â16 Shells from a 30.6â he unleashes the gravely howl that would become his trademark. Waits was always a reliable guide to the desperate underbelly of American city life, but with Swordfishtrombones, it became clear that this was only the first stop on an itinerary eventually destined for hell. Cole
25. Kraftwerk, Computer World
In the beginning there was light, said Genesis. Then came apes and space travel, an odyssey immortalized by Stanley Kubrick. And somewhere between there were computers, their rise the theme of the maximalist Computer World, the eighth and last great album by chilly electronic geek-teurs Kraftwerk. Consistent with the pioneering German bandâs body of work, the album is an exploration of the effects of technology on modern urban living, which will sound as torturous as a Todd Haynes film lecture to someone whoâs never actually heard Kraftwerkâs music. Across seven gorgeously lurching and exacting tracks, we are made to understand the angst and hilarity of our inextricable, personality-warping ties to the computer. This prescient sonic landscape still leaves one feeling with the sensation of having swum through a prickly but immaculate ocean of 0s and 1s. Gonzalez
24. U2, The Joshua Tree
Never has an album synthesized angst, spirituality, love, and politics in just its first three tracks as well as The Joshua Tree, the only U2 album that seriously threatens Achtung Baby as the bandâs greatest accomplishment. With âWhere the Streets Have No Name,â âI Still Havenât Found What Iâm Looking For,â and âWith or Without You,â three of the bandâs most aching, impassioned songs back to back to back, the band became lords and emperors of anthemic â80s rock. Perhaps on a more meaningful level, though, the universality of The Joshua Tree completed U2âs evolution from Irish ruffians to globe-straddling rock heroes. âOutside is America,â Bono sings on âBullet the Blue Sky,â prescient to the fact that with the albumâs astounding success, U2 no longer belonged to Dublin, but the world. Liedel
23. New Order, Power, Corruption & Lies
From the instantly recognizable surf-guitar riff that opens âAge of Consentâ to the poignant, observational lyrics of âLeave Me Alone,â New Orderâs second album finds the band working with broader sonic and emotional palettes than on their debut. Movement was apiece with Joy Divisionâs dismal worldview (the suicide of a dear friend does not often prompt a positive reassessment of oneâs lot in life), but Power, Corruption & Lies marks the real beginning of New Orderâs career. Sweet pop songs like âThe Villageâ are juxtaposed by beautiful, melancholy compositions, none of which stand out as elegantly as âYour Silent Face.â With Bernard Sumnerâs fragile, boyish voice giving the album a human center, the dance-rock pioneers had crafted their first perfect pop record. Cole
22. Cyndi Lauper, Sheâs So Unusual
An absolutely peerless collection of profound pop jewels that achingly and euphorically speak to the heart and soul of a girl grappling with loneliness, carnality, being down and out, the pressures of growing up, knowing that you have to even though you donât want to, and the paradoxes of being a girl in a society that doesnât respect you. And maybe itâs because Cyndi Lauper is a girl that the album still doesnât get the respect it deserves from chauvinistic rock critics that would hide her away from the rest of the worldâor maybe itâs because two of its greatest songs are covers, which trivializes her outstanding retaining of Princeâs pronouns for her take on âWhen You Were Mine,â one of pop musicâs most radical sleights of hand. Like the fluttering production of âAll Through the Night,â there are some mightily empowered hooks here that still send shivers up my spine, that once made me believe that this wonderful kook really could walk in the sun. Gonzalez
21. Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes
Folk-punk pioneer Gordon Gano wrote the songs on Violent Femmesâ 1983 debut when he was still in high school, which goes a long way toward explaining why the songs possess such an authentic sense of teen angst. Of course, Ganoâs creaky voice aids in the image of a pimply social outcast scribbling in his notebook late at night or in the back of a classroom. Violent Femmes is horny, cheeky, and audacious, but itâs also musically sophisticated and deftly executed, with infectious hooks and harmonies (âPlease Do Not Goâ) and some of the slickest acoustic ax riffs and tightest rhythm sections (âBlister in the Sun,â âKiss Offâ) put to tape. Cinquemani
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 singerâs 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 cohesiveâand confessionalâcollection. 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 âTill Death Do Us Part,â 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 doorâthe closing of a chapter, if you will, and the beginning of a new one. By the late â80s, 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
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 Simonâs career in the â80s. 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. âYou Can Call Me Alâ is a prime example of that winning formula, where the typically witty existentialism of Simonâs 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 canât quite match the recordâs blithe mosaic. Liedel
18. N.W.A.,Â Straight Outta Compton
âDo I look like a motherfucking role model?!â You know your debut has truly caught peopleâs attention when even J. Edgarâs descendant soldiers are wiring you demerits. Given the carnage on display, though, itâs not hard to see why G-Men started getting a little testy when they caught wind of G-funkâs prehistory emerging from speakers everywhere in the form of the metaphor-free âFuck tha Police.â The juxtaposition of midtempo, Cali-languid grooves and violent wordplay positioned Straight Outta Compton as the sound of the West Coast firing on New Yorkâs Fort Sumpter in what would become â90s cultureâs biggest Uncivil War. Henderson
17. R.E.M., Document
Michael Stipe has said he knew he wanted to play in a rock band when he heard Patti Smithâs 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. Stipeâs lyrics had never been as political, though with the exception of âExhuming McCarthy,â he avoids making accusations, instead using desolate midtempo numbers like âWelcome to the Occupationâ and âKing of Birds,â which paraphrases Reaganâs 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
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 âBigmouth Strikes Againâ and âThe Boy with the Thorn in His Sideâ are as much his showcase as they are Morrisseyâs, who only really steals the show on âI Know Itâs Over.â 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
15. The Cure, Disintegration
After two albumsâ worth of uncharacteristically light-hearted pop, Disintegration mightâve sounded like something of a relapse for the Cure. Itâs a dreamlike album that turns nightmarish in places as its icy, imperious pop epics channel Pornographyâs 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 Smithâs wardrobe, we wouldnât call this goth. Weâd call it sad, pretty pop music. Cole
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, itâs the most overstuffed and expansive effort of his long career. From the squealing free jazz of âMidtownâ to the jaunty music-hall balladry of âAnywhere I Lay My Headâ 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
13. R.E.M., Murmur
For many, this was their first taste of Michael Stipeâs 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 Buckâs just-shy-of-strident guitar and Mike Millsâs harmonious basslines. There are R.E.M. albums I cherish more, but Buck and Mills never played better than they did on âRadio Free Europe,â âMoral Kiosk,â âCatapult,â âSitting Still,â and â9-9,â a gorgeous and unexpectedly sexy cacophony of sound and canny wordplay that gives striking expression to Stripeâs 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. didnât stay. Gonzalez
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 Boysâ 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 Paulâs Boutique, itâs a groundbreaking classic that helped set an exciting template for the future. Cataldo
11. Prince, Sign oâ the Times
Finding Prince at an all-time high of musical creativity and an all-time low of horniness, Sign oâ the Times is Princeâs most varied album and his most self-consciously auteurish. It collects tracks from a few yearsâ 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 âPlay in the Sunshineâ and the nervy, obsessive sexuality of âIf I Was Your Girlfriendâ 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 oneâs quite figured out how to follow Princeâs trail this far. For all of the new musical possibilities that Sign oâ the Times opens up, it also prompts the sobering realization that most of them will only ever be possibilities for one musician. Cole
10. Kate Bush, Hounds of Love
My mother, a freak for the Victorian, once defied by father by naming me not after him, his father, and his fatherâs father, but after an Emily BrontĂ« character, so it was destiny that lured my imagination to the wily, windy moors from which Kate Bush appears to sing these tales of longing and remembrance. The album is a hauntingâlush with playful and dramatic dreaming, metaphor and symbolism, motifs of running and hiding, beats that gently fall like raindrops. She plays child, woman, beast, and witch, standing on the ground but sounding as if sheâs flying through the sky. She is hunter and huntee at once, and she makes you feel her transformation from one to the other, quite literally, with a howling. A whistle becomes a gust of wind, and it takes you away in its wraith-like arms to a place of very warm comfort. Gonzalez
9. De La Soul, 3 Feet High & Rising
De La Soul were easy and breezy when it seemed everyone else winning the game preferred sleazy. So you just knew white folks from the Pazz & Jop roll call all the way down to college DJs in Wyoming were going to flip their token for the â60s utopianism and overachieving, carnivalesque sonic display of 3 Feet High & Rising (as they later would over Deee-Liteâs plastique-fantastique, vitamin C-infused inversion of underground house). But you canât listen to Prince Paulâs stitchery with the Funkadelic bounce of âMe Myself and I,â the saxy âPotholes in My Lawn,â or the scratching of âBuddyâ and still hold that against them. Henderson
8. Prince, 1999
If Princeâs reign over the airwaves ended a good deal earlier than the year he predicted the world itself would end in 1999, the album still marked the grand crossover moment for the decadeâs most versatile, least predictable pop superstar. Positioned betweenâand embodying the strengths of bothâthe rambunctious, genre-defying immediacy of Dirty Mind and Controversy before it and the dick-waving rock majesty of the Purple Rain soundtrack that followed, 1999 is an expansive, disturbed communiquĂ© from the nexus of naked funk and sexual obsession. âSome people tell me Iâve got great legs.â Nope, this is not your grandfatherâs rhythm and blues. Henderson
7. Joy Division, Closer
The fact that Joy Divisionâs very name is synonymous with â80s post-punk despite their having released only one album in the decade speaks to Closerâs looming impact on the genre it helped propel. A similar shadow was cast by frontman Ian Curtisâs death shortly before the albumâs release, lending Closer an added layer of mystique to the bandâs already-bittersweet unfulfilled promise. Though the remaining members would go on to form seminal synth-pop group New Order, Closer exists as Joy Divisionâs magnificent epithet. Its songs are beautifully crafted dirges, with thrumming, ghostly synths and plumbing basslines bolstering Curtisâs imaginative but morbid lyricism. Liedel
6. Talking Heads, Remain in Light
Paul Simonâs Graceland gets much of the credit for the revival of African-inspired pop music in the mid-â80s, but the Brian Eno-produced Remain in Light broke that ground six years earlier with a joyous meld of Afrobeat and post-punk. This is Talking Heads at their best, a band that had once teased its listeners with full-fledged worldbeat experimentation now reveling in the interplay between South African harmonies, new wave looping, and funk rhythms. Remain in Light is, in effect, one long, finely crafted global jam session, delivered by a group of musicians who can ably handle its assortment of eclectic parts and intricacies. As predictable as it might be to point to âOnce in a Lifetimeâ as a perfect microcosm of everything thatâs right about Remain in Light, the point holds true: The track, like its album, is blithe, bizarre, noisy, unpredictable, and a deliciously energetic slice of pop virtuosity. Liedel
5. Beastie Boys, Paulâs Boutique
Those who dismissed the music of the Beastie Boys as hackneyed frat-boy gimmickryâand those who expected these three white Jews to descend into novelty caricaturesâwere forced to eat their words with the release of Paulâs Boutique. And though it was a complete commercial disaster in 1989, this spastic blitzkrieg of pop-culture references and madcap sampling marks the moment where the Beastie Boys were taken seriously as artists. The trio redefined the posse-rap dynamic with their furious to-and-fro changeovers, punctuating their rhymes with sassy samples to further energise their unorthodox sound. Paulâs Boutique is the sound of hip-hop sneaking into mainstream consciousness, purchasing property in affluent suburbia and inner cities alike, all thanks to three born-again punk rockers. Jones
4. The Clash, London Calling
A large part of the musical narrative of the â80s involves the parasitic influence of punk, as its rough attitudes and stripped-down approach spread out to consume and incorporate outlying genres. One of the first instances of this spread occurred as the decade was just dawning, on a sprawling album that expands to cover Jamaican ska, northern soul, and American pop, creating both a searing document of a world in flux and a convincing precedent for the rest of the decade. All this in addition to a sharp lyrical sense, which espouses revolutionary rhetoric without sounding completely idiotic. Cataldo
3. Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Now that hip-hop has become so intractably linked to mainstream pop, the idea of a hip-hop album as revolutionary as It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is hard to fathom. In the nearly 25 years since the albumâs release, hip-hop culture has been embraced by the very nation of millions Public Enemy railed against. It may not sound as groundbreaking as it once did (though, thanks to the Bomb Squadâs most creative productions, itâs still catchy as all hell), but itâs a testament to Public Enemyâs power and intelligence that the albumâs ferocious political outrage and its damning portraits of institutionalized racism and class warfare are still as relevant as theyâve ever been. Keefe
2. Prince and the Revolution, Purple Rain
On which Violet the Organ Grinder takes us to church and straight into the confession box. The album may not possess the salaciousness of Dirty Mind, but even at its softest, its most âmature,â it exudes a rapturous sense of feeling. From elevators to hotel lobbies and beyond, Prince resigns himself to love and makes you feel the funky stirrings of his heart, perhaps most expressively on âThe Beautiful Ones.â From here to there, life to death, thereâs a startling, telling fixation on movement. This is, after all, a companion piece to a film that ostentatiously depicts the Kidâs rise to fame. And thereâs no fall here, only one gorgeous climax after another, immaculately and luxuriously sustained from beginning to end. Gonzalez
1. Michael Jackson, Thriller
What additional praise can be heaped on Michael Jacksonâs genre-mashing magnum opus except to say that even the lesser hits like âP.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)â are perfectly rendered pop gems? That seven of the albumâs nine tracks were all Top 10 hits reinforces how much of a culture-defining gargantuan Thriller was and continues to be. And yet, despite the well-earned acclaim and its unquestionable unification of fans across class, age, gender, and racial lines, Thriller is an album steeped in angst and loneliness. Lest we forget from years of grotesque eccentricity, Jackson was once the original Kanye West, and this album was his own dark, twisted fantasyâa glimpse into a creative but fissured mind that sought, above all things, unquestionable greatness. MJ achieves that countless times on Thriller, arguably the most sublime 42 minutes of pop music ever recorded. Liedel
Interview: Mary Kay Place on the Emotional Journey of Kent Jonesâs Diane
The actress speaks at length about the little pieces of herself that she sees in her character.
Diane, the eponymous character of film critic, programmer, and documentarian
Kent Jonesâs narrative directorial debut, provides Mary Kay Place with a rare leading role that the character actress inhabits with customary nuance. Diane is a woman grappling with countless burdens, none bigger than her struggle to bridge the gap between herself and her son, Brian (Jake Lacy), whoâs battling addiction. Place is in every scene of the film, and sheâs mesmerizing in each one, for showing how Dianeâs routines, from volunteering at a soup kitchen to caring for a dying cousin, takes some kind of toll on her mind.
Place has delivered many memorable performances throughout her long career, most notably in The Big Chill and Manny & Lo. She became reliable for playing folksy, no-nonsense womenâoften mothersâwhoâre predisposed to putting others first and leading from the heart. Maybe thatâs why Diane felt like a perfect fit for the actress. Throughout Jonesâs film, Diane drops by houses and hospital rooms, looking to stay âonly but for a minute.â But her business masks a deeper pain and loneliness, and the film allows Kay to bring to the surface certain rhythms that she hasnât often been allowed to channel in her previous work.
In a recent conversation with Place about Diane, the actress spoke to me at length about the little pieces of herself that she sees in her character, how she expresses her own anger, and why she considers herself a âkitchen dancer.â
Diane is selfless, lonely, ashamed, tough. Do you see yourself in her?
Yes, because she lives in a small community, and my parents came from small towns in Texas, and because I went to these towns my whole life to visit my grandparents with my family. The casserole exchange, and the experiences that take place in small communitiesâthey resonated with me. Many of us in our families have addiction issues; we can all relate to that aspect of Diane. And many of us have said things we regret or feel ashamed about and hold on to, though maybe not for as long as Diane does. As members of her family pass away, that family loss is an initiation into a new dimension of your life. I could relate to that as well. She takes a turn into a deeper exploration of her own needs and wants because she has time to reflect.
Dianeâs well-meaning is an attempt to compensate for her failures. Why do you think Diane is the way she is, so hard on herself?
Because some people just are. Sheâs a sensitive person. She busies herself with lists to distract her from thinking about the things she carries around as a burden. But as the film moves on, she has more time for reflection and goes through a transformation in small, tiny ways.
Much of your performance as Diane is internal. Can you describe your process in playing those moments?
It flowed naturally because of the script. There was an inner dialogue going on and that was reflected on my face. I was aware of subtext. Even though it wasnât written, my imagination found the rhythm and flow that occurred. Once you get into shooting, being in every scene helped that development. There was an inner and outer dialogue. We go through this whole time period and as she has more time alone and once her son gets soberâthatâs a huge weight off her shouldersâshe doesnât know what to do with herself.
Dianeâs relationship with her son is interesting. He lies to her, he bullies her, and at times she stands up to him. Sheâs no-nonsense in dealing with him. Iâm curious to know your personal thoughts about this dynamic of their relationship?
Sheâs definitely codependent and enabling her son by doing his laundry. She doesnât know how to let go. Maybe sheâs never been to an Al-Anon meetingâor has and rejected it. So, they have this dynamic, and they feed off each other. Theyâre hooked in. Sheâs not able to break free of it.
How do you personally cope with the ups and downs of life?
Well, I do centering prayer, and mindful meditation, exercise. I think the prayer and meditation have always been important coping mechanisms.
Thereâs a scene in a bar where Diane goes drinking, puts on the jukebox and dances. It made me remember your dancing in the kitchen to âHandymanâ in Smooth Talk.
Iâm a big kitchen dancerâwith other people or by myself. I have all kinds of playlists and I love to dance. I really wanted to do that bar scene. I picked the songâLeon Russellâs âOut in the Woodsââbecause itâs fun to dance to, and the lyrics were appropriate for Diane. Kent was game for that. It showed another side of Diane that we hadnât seen. It was from when she was at a simpler time in her life and didnât have shameful thoughts and was just out having fun.
We see what makes Diane come undone. So I guess Iâm also curious to know what makes you lose your temper or patience?
I come from a family that doesnât hold things in. We let the freak flag fly and then itâs totally over and done with. Explosions and then weâre through! I lose patience with people being oblivious to the feeling of others, and I have no tolerance for meanness. None. I might lash out, depend on the circumstancesâand I can if called uponâbut I generally donât.
Diane appears to be a creature of habit, living a life that consists of routine. Are you in that mold, or more peripatetic or free-spirited?
Iâm âboth/andâ instead of âeither/or.â I get real orderly and then I get real spontaneous and have to start all over again. Dianeâs driving connects the scenes and shows that monotony that she experiences. Oh my God, weâre back in that car again driving to someoneâs house! Itâs not a walking community. And itâs a different rhythm driving on country roads than in L.A.
We also see how patient Diane can be. Where do you think she gets that quality, and do you share it?
Sometimes sheâs not patient. I strive to be more patient. I can be patient and sometimes I can be very impatient. Once again, itâs a âboth/andâ kind of thing.
Your career has been as an in-demand character actress. This is a rare leading role for you. Watching Diane, I kept thinking: âItâs long overdue that you were the star!â
Thank you for saying itâs long overdue. I enjoy every minute of it, but I love ensemble work. Itâs interesting to find a rhythm and exchange words and movement with other people. Itâs fun. Itâs been interesting to have this leading part, but I love the other work as well.
Interview: Jia Zhang-ke on Ash Is Purest White and the Evolution of China
Jia discusses what he likes about digital video and how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life.
Unshowy yet unshakably self-assured, sincere but with glimpses of a sly sense of humor, and unhesitatingly frank even about touchy topics like the Chinese governmentâs censorship of his work, Jia Zhang-ke comes off in person just as a fan of his films might expect. Ever since his 1997 feature debut, The Pickpocket, and 2000âs Platform, in which young people struggle to adapt to Chinaâs increasing Westernization, Jia has been creating a kind of unofficial history of his homeland, quietly defying his governmentâs determination to erase its tracks as it barrels along by doing things like rewiring the economy, rewriting the social contract, and depopulating whole cities and erecting new ones in a matter of months.
Jiaâs films operate in metaphorical deep focus, surfacing the ways that these sweeping societal changes affect individual lives and relationships by zeroing in on sensitively detailed portrayals of two lovers, or of a group or pair of friends, while just as clearly portraying the socioeconomic backdrops to their stories. And often at the center of his films is Zhao Tao, his wife and longtime muse. In Jiaâs latest, Ash Is Purest White, Zhao reprises the role she played in 2002âs Unknown Pleasures: Qiao Qiao, a strong-willed woman from Jiaâs hometown of Fenyang, this time over a span of 17 years that starts when sheâs the young lover of a gangster and ends with her in charge of the gambling den he once ran.
In a conversation before Ash Is Purest Whiteâs debut at the New York Film Festival, Jia explained what he likes about digital video, how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life, and how he deals with his governmentâs suppression of his work.
The music in your films is always an important part of the story. Can you talk about how you picked the songs for this one, starting with âY.M.C.A.â?
Since I wanted to set the story starting in 2001, I wanted to find a piece of music that can trigger that particular era very authentically. And back in the day, in 2001, the younger generation, they didnât have a lot of sources of entertainment. They might have had a disco club and karaoke, and that was about it. Two songs very popular at that time were âY.M.C.A.â and âGo Westâ [the Pet Shop Boys song that was a motif in Jiaâs Mountains May Depart].
The reason that we liked âY.M.C.A.â was not because we understood the lyrics or understood who sang them or who was involved in the production. We had no idea what they were singing about. But we did enjoy the rhythm, the melody, and the beat, which is matching the heartbeat of the young people. It really got you going and brought up the energy of the room.
Another song that is particularly important in the filmâyou hear it again and againâis âDrunk for Lifeâ by Sally Yeh, a Cantonese pop singer. This is a song I listened to when I was in junior high. At the time, young people tended to hang out in the video arcade, and this was one of the songs heard there. It was also a theme song for John Wooâs The Killer. That film, in the triad genre, is very similar to the John Woo motif that I want to evoke in this film.
The third song in this film is âHow Much Love Can Be Repeated?â This sequence was actually shot 12 years ago in Three Gorges, when I made Still Life. I think the reason why I wanted to use it was that it could create this interesting contrast between what was happening on stage and Zhaoâs character off stage, when you see her reaction watching this performance. Mind you, the on-stage part was shot 12 years ago, but Zhaoâs part was shot last year. Hopefully, you cannot tell that these two footages were from two different times and spaces.
Was any of the other Three Gorges footage shot for Still Life, or shot when you were making that film? I know you shot a lot of documentary footage there at the time.
Only that particular clip was shot 12 years ago. The rest, we went back to the same location and tried to capture what we did in Still Life. But, unlike in other parts of the film, where we tend to use digital video, for the Three Gorges part we use film stock. Thatâs why it gives you a sense of nostalgia, evoking what happened in the past.
Youâve worked in digital video for a long time, partly because it allowed you to bypass processing labs, which would not have developed your films because they werenât government-approved. Digital video also made it much easier for your films to be copied and disseminated in China when they werenât being played in theaters. Are there also things that you prefer artistically about using digital video, especially now that it can do so much more than it could early on?
Starting in 2001, using DV to shoot Unknown Pleasures, I didnât think of it just for practical purposes. DV as a medium has its own aesthetics that I can really explore and develop. Using DV you can create a close proximity between the camera and the actors and actresses, a kind of intimacy that cannot be done through the traditional camera.
The other thing is, things that happen unexpectedly can be easily captured with DV cameras. With cameras that use film stock, things are usually highly scripted in a contained, particular environment. With DV you tend to have a lot of spontaneity and a lot of impromptu happenstances that can be easily captured.
Itâs so important for people to share their stories and learn from history. To me, one of the most important forms of disruption in China since Mao is the way people have been barred from telling their stories, or made to alter what they say to fit some official narrative. So youâre performing an important service by writing history with your films, recording the story of the present and the recent past for the people of tomorrow.
I think thatâs also why I rely a lot on DV. I joke that only the pace of the evolution of DV equipment can keep up with the pace of the development of China. For me, this film is very much about how, in this time span of 17 years, human connections and human emotionsâthe interpersonal relationships between peopleâevolves and changes as a result of all that. On the surface, you can see very clearly the changes pre-internet era and post-internet era, [things like how] in the past you had slow trains and now you have high-speed trains. But that is on the surface level. What Iâm interested in exploring is what happened in terms of the inner world of those people in this particular historical context, how their relationships evolved or dissolved and the reasons for the dissolutions and the evolutions of their relationships.
Youâve said you like working with your wife partly because she becomes a kind of second author of your screenplays, adding detail to what you have written. Can you give an example of what she brought to this movie?
When she was in the cabin of the boat and the lady in black [a cabinmate] came in, she just, almost as a kneejerk reaction, stood up, suddenly and immediately. She was trying to capture what it would be like for someone who has been in prison for five years, how she would have reacted to a security guard entering the jail cell and how she would react the same way when this lady in black entered her cabin.
I see her training as a dancer a lot in the physicality of her acting.
Yes. Another example would be the water bottle in this film. It was used to evoke this same character in Still Life, and she carried that water bottle there too. It makes sense because of the weather; it was very hot so she would need to drink. But the water bottle also came in handy to enhance the mood I was trying to create. Zhao Tao took this on and really went for it. She used it as a weapon, she used it as a way to stop the door from closing,
And to avoid holding hands with the man she met on the train.
Exactly. She was using this bottle as a kind of third character in the film, thinking about how this can be expanded and explored.
Your work has faced such strong resistance from the Chinese government. What is the governmentâs response to your films these days, and how does that affect how you work or how your films are seen?
I make films based on my own ecology, my own tempo and rhythm. I donât really think too much about whether or not the film can be shown in China. Of course, I would love if my film could be shown in China, but thatâs not the only reason why I make films. The most important thing for me is to understand that thatâs not the end goal, so I donât need to somehow sacrifice and change the way I make films in order to be shown in China.
I will make the film I want to make, and if it can be shown in China, great. If not, so be it. Thatâs the way I interact with this particular censorship system. But I have to say that the situation has improved in terms of the communication channels. Those have opened up a lot more, so after I finish the film, I will do my best as a director to communicate to the censor bureau why this film should be shown in China. That I am willing to do. But I will not compromise the quality or any subject matter.
Translation by Vincent Cheng
Every Cannes Palme dâOr Winner of the 2000s Ranked
Thereâs a certain formula that often defines the recipients of Cannesâs most prestigious prize.
Thereâs a certain formula that often defines the recipients of the Cannes Film Festivalâs prestigious top prize, the Palme dâOr. These films, in recent years especially, tend to have a sense of importance about them (Michael Mooreâs Fahrenheit 9/11), frequently due to their sociopolitical awareness of the world (Laurent Cantetâs The Class), or of specific societal ills (Cristian Mungiuâs 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). Very occasionally, the Palme dâOr goes to a bold, experimental, and divisive vision from a well-liked auteur (Apichatpong Weerasethakulâs Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), but more often itâs awarded to a film in the lineup that the most people on the Cannes jury can probably agree is good (Ken Loachâs I, Daniel Blake). And in less than three months, weâll see if Alejandro G. IĂ±ĂĄrrituâs jury will follow any sort of predictable formula when it announces its winners.
Youâll find us on the Croisette this May, covering most of the titles in Cannesâs competition slate. Until then, enjoy our ranking of the Palme dâOr winner from the 2000s. Sam C. Mac
Editorâs Note: This entry was originally published on May 1, 2018.
19. The Sonâs Room (2001)
Halfway through The Sonâs Room, director Nanni Moretti shifts the rhetoric of his narrative away from an exaggerated view of happy domesticity and into a realm of weepy melodrama. Psychiatrist Giovanni (Moretti) is a perfect father and husband: he helps his daughter with her Latin homework (perducto means âwithout hardship you will be guidedââwink, wink); allows her boyfriend to exalt grass (when high, the boy says heâs âlooking at the universeâ); and initiates group lip-synching during the familyâs car trips. Nicola Piovaniâs score grotesquely heightens the joy behind every smile, meaning disaster is inevitable. As Moretti delves deeper into Giovanniâs work, focus is shifted away from the family arena. Though the film blooms when Paola (Laura Morante) and the family seek deliverance from their pain by connecting with a girl their deceased son, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice), met at summer camp, Paola remains a cipher throughout. Cue Brian Enoâs âBy This River,â which blares from a car radio as the family stands near the sea that killed their Andrea: âHere we are stuck by this river/You and I underneath a sky/Thatâs ever falling down, down, down.â In this one stoic moment, not only does the family seemingly escape their grief but also the Rob Reiner soap opera Moretti trapped them in. Ed Gonzalez
18. Fahrenheit 911 (2004)
A mediocre director but a master PR man, Michael Moore is the father of the Happy Meal documentary: big fonts, quick-fire montages, celebrity cameos, causing elaborate scenes. Fahrenheit 9/11 is no less an attention-grabbing stunt than his Bowling for Columbine, but what a scene it is. At the time of its release, Mooreâs compilation of the Bush I administrationâs bamboozling of the American public in the wake of 9/11. More than 10 years after its release, though, what lingers most about the film is Mooreâs self-aggrandizement and forced sanctimoniousness (he rah-rahs from the sidelines when an interviewee says something he agrees with, and you sometimes get a sense that he wouldnât call a dying man an ambulance if it meant getting the money shot of the guy croaking). At least itâs some kind of mercy that he spends very little time on screen. Gonzalez
17. Amour (2012)
Thereâs a deceptiveness lurking deep within Amour, an insincerity that colors the drama, recasting it as a ploy. Whereas across earlier films Michael Hanekeâs predilection for deceit served a high-minded, if still somewhat suspect, intellectual purpose (an interrogation of privilege and meaning in CachĂ©, the deconstruction of genre in both versions of Funny Games, and so on), here his disingenuous approach is not only unwarranted, but is actually at odds with the tone and tenor of the drama. This suggests two possibilities: Either Haneke has attempted to shear his sensibility of trickery and failed to do so convincingly, or he has made an experiment in manipulation and feigned empathy so exacting and oblique that nobody has understood its real purpose (I wouldnât put the latter past him). Either way, Amour intends to dupe us, to feed on our own pain and suffering. Moved to tears or scared to death, weâd all lose our dignity in the end. Calum Marsh
16. I, Daniel Blake (2016)
English stand-up comedian Dave Johns brings the sort of spontaneous energy to his eponymous character thatâs consistently made Loachâs films worth keeping up with. But Blakeâs storyline veers from its emotionally grounded setup and into grandstanding displays like the Michael Moore-worthy stunt from which I, Daniel Blake takes its title. Both principal actors have a strong enough sense of their characters, even as theyâre pulled into increasingly harrowing places, to make the film a more successful one than Loachâs last few, but itâs still schematic and predictable, and it aggressively stacks the deck against Blake and Kattie (Hayley Squires) in a way that makes it more effective as social activism, and less so as drama. The Loach of two or three decades ago, who made intimate, naturalistic films about the working class, like 1969âs Kes and 1994âs Ladybird Ladybird, is distinctly different from the Loach of todayâand the soapbox-prone I, Daniel Blake reaffirms how unlikely it is for that to change. Mac
15. The Class (2008)
When a plot finally emerges, itâs all about the quandaries of privileging principle (and principal) or empiricism, duty or personal preference, questions that have been implicit all along, even in kidsâ protests that theyâre always being picked on or favored. As a clever late twist suggests, the interactions themselves are almost all riffs on Socratic debatesâusually, the teacher seems to be asking students to verify their claims so he can give himself time to rebutâand as director Laurent Cantet said at The Classâs New York Film Festival press conference, the schoolâs a place âwhere democracy is at stake.â Instead of the usual righteous monologues, this is a film of dialogue and dialogues, in which the bickering teachersâ conferences begin to echo the kidsâ troublemaking and skepticism but for the adultsâ pretense of understanding and decorum (everyone, in any case, has their reason and handily states it in close-up). It would make a perfect, though not particularly good, double feature with Frederick Wisemanâs documentary State Legislature or Advise and Consent. David Phelps
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