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The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

As for the just-burgeoning hip-hop genre, acts like Public Enemy and De La Soul not only had a conscience—they served as ours.

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The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

While ‘80s pop culture is largely remembered for its frivolity, the social unrest that stirred beneath the decade’s brightly colored gloss and greed resulted in not just the guilt-driven good intentions of enterprises like the star-studded USA for Africa, but a generation of artists whose music genuinely reflected the state of the world. They say all politics is local, and the incisive perspectives of the decade’s defining acts were likewise geographical: Released in the U.S. in January of 1980, the Clash’s seminal London Calling ushered in a new decade with disgruntled punk rock from across the pond, while U2’s 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 era’s biggest pop stars (Michael, Janet, Madonna) were transformed into cultural critics too, reflecting on poverty, race relations, and what Prince called “a big disease with a little name.” 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 conscience—they served as ours. Sal Cinquemani


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

100. Soul II Soul, Club Classics Vol. One

Less a product of its own decade than a prophecy of the next one, Soul II Soul’s 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 what’s more impressive? That the album’s classic singles (“Fairplay,” “Keep On Movin’,” and “Back to Life”) don’t sound anything like one another, or that, two decades of girl groups later, they still sound totally unique? Matthew Cole


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

99. Slick Rick, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick

Rap’s 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 Queen’s 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 Rick’s tales can fringe on vulgar and misogynistic, but his storytelling prowess is second to none. Huw Jones


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

98. X, Los Angeles

A punk-rock power duo making strong use of their male/female dynamic, Exene Cervenka and John Doe fronted X’s 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 that’s 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 album’s cover. Jesse Cataldo


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

97. George Clinton, Computer Games

George Clinton’s solo debut begins, almost oddly, with the former Parliament and Funkadelic frontman putting on his clothes. But the song’s message is a naked one: the promise of a throw down—to bring on the funk, the soul, and the psychedelic like no one’s business. What follows is an almost spotless blitzkrieg of jams that run the gamut from the rousing (“One Fun at a Time”), to the poignantly metaphoric (“Free Alternations”), to the playfully infantile (“Pot Sharing Tots”). “Loopzilla” is a master class in sampladelic overload, and the title tune suggests Kraftwerk put through a P-Funk filter, but it’s the synth-funk “Atomic Dog” that remains the album’s triumph, an unbelievably improvised totem to Clinton’s own stray cock strut, and one that makes a world without Adina Howard and Snoop Dogg seem impossible. Ed Gonzalez


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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 Talk’s The Colour of Spring, however, stands as one of the band’s most satisfying standalone albums, even though it’s a clear bridge between their origins in new wave and the post-rock of their later albums. Songs like “Life’s What You Make of It” and “I Don’t Believe in You” strike a perfect and often beautiful balance between Talk Talk’s 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 children’s choir. Jonathan Keefe


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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 “emo” wasn’t around in 1985, though Richard Kelly’s use of the dreamy “Head Over Heels” in his frowny sci-fi teen-angst epic Donnie Darko paid back that particular favor with interest.) British synth-pop act Tears for Fears’ follow-up to the critically acclaimed The Hurting may have seemed a sellout at the time, but heard anew today, the cathartic, shuffling hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” seems like one of the great indictments of the materialism and false triumphalism of the decade. Eric Henderson


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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 “Sunday Bloody Sunday” an instrument as refined as the violin takes turns playing electrical whip, wailing animal, and battle cry across the song’s marching protest beat. This is U2 at their angriest, each piece infused with a sense of dark urgency that reaches a frothy head on “New Year’s Day.” Bono’s resolution, “I will begin again,” 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


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

93. The Fall, This Nation’s Saving Grace

This Nation’s 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 “Barmy,” “What You Need,” and “Spoilt Victorian Child,” the group strikes the perfect balance between bilious dirge and subversive pop, while “Paintwork” is a charmingly tongue-in-cheek homage to ‘60s 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


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

92. My Bloody Valentine, Isn’t Anything

It’s easy to dismiss Isn’t Anything as Loveless-lite, but My Bloody Valentine doesn’t attempt anything quite as epic or ambitious on their debut as they would just two years later. But even when they’re less grandiose, the shoegazing pioneers’ 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 that’s capable of simultaneously soundtracking our most ethereal dreams and most violent nightmares. Isn’t Anything beautifies all that should be ugly, and deserves a spot as a lo-fi masterpiece in its own right. Jones


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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 1984’s Meat Puppets II was fully capable of doing on its own merits. “Plateau,” “Oh, Me,” and “Lake of Fire”—the three songs that Cobain performed with the band—are especially alluring examples of the group’s cowpunk formula, and they strike similar success with the alluring “We’re Here” and endlessly infectious “The Whistling Song.” And with instrumental tracks “Aurora Borealis” and “I’m A Mindless Idiot,” the group is still in excellent form, serving up front-porch psychedelica of the highest order. Jones


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

90. Metallica, Master of Puppets

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


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

89. Talking Heads, Speaking in Tongues

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


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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 Tennant’s yawn could conceivably greet any DJ set that dares to drop “One More Chance” or “Hit Music” alongside, say, “The Pleasure Principle.” Actually, Chris Lowe’s synth lines make cheap sound posh and vice versa. Actually, you know what you’ve done to deserve this, but are afraid to admit it. Actually, it isn’t a sin, but it’s more fun if you think it is. Actually, it’s hiding in plain sight. Actually, none of your business. Actually, this is all precisely the point. Henderson


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

87. Tom Tom Club, Tom Tom Club

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


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

86. The Human League, Dare!

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


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

85. The Clash, Sandinista!

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


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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 Bambaattaa’s Planet Rock alone make this landmark album worth the price of admission, stocked as they are with lessons on both the history and future of the genres. “Looking for the Perfect Beat” is still emulated by hip-hop and dance producers to this day, while the title track, first released as a single in 1982 and constructed from recreated portions of Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” and “Numbers” (from the German group’s Computer World), singlehandedly fathered both ‘80s Latin freestyle and the entire hip-hop genre as we know it. Cinquemani


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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 it’s the voice of an exorcist on “The Jezebel Spirit” or a nervous radio-show caller on “Mea Culpa,” Brian Eno and David Byrne harness these disparate voices as the engines for a series of amazingly diverse tracks. Cataldo


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

82. Sonic Youth, EVOL

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


The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

81. R.E.M., Reckoning

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

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