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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.



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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

80. The Clash, Combat Rock

“This is a public service announcement…with guitars!” The album’s famous first words, and a perfectly concise summation of the Clash’s 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 Rock’s 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 “Car Jamming” attests like few other Clash songs to Joe Strummer’s 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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

79. The Cure, Pornography

The general read on the Cure’s legacy has been unfairly reduced to music for mopey goth kids, which misses the breadth of the band’s actual output. But it’s not like that reputation emerged from a vacuum: There’s Pornography, which opens with the line “It doesn’t matter if we all die” 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 “The Figurehead,” 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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

78. The Bangles, Different Light

It’s telling that, in a decade dominated by men, the first all-girl band to top the Hot 100 (with the kitschy “Walk Like an Egyptian”) 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 album’s biggest hits were written by other people (including the somewhat out-of-place yet nonetheless hard-to-resist “Walk Like an Egyptian” and the Prince-penned opener “Manic Monday”), but it’s the simple sophistication of the songs composed by the band themselves, like the rollicking title track and the haunting acoustic ballad “Following,” that makes Different Light more than simply a collection of Top 40 hits from a bygone era, but one of that era’s best pop albums. Cinquemani

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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 Watt’s fiercest social and political tirades. What’s more, given Watt’s propulsive basslines and Boon’s 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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

76. Art of Noise, Who’s Afraid of the Art of Noise?

“In the nineteenth century, with the invention of the machine, Noise was born,” 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 Russolo’s famous essay, was born, concocting cacophonous collages of digital beats and samples that would influence an entire generation of knob twirlers. The group’s 1984 debut opens with the proto-political “A Time for Fear (Who’s Afraid),” 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 Björk and Tricky. Surprisingly, it’s the album’s least noisy track, the 10-minute instrumental chill-out “Moments In Love,” that truly veers off into some exhilaratingly strange, unexpected territory. Russolo would be proud. Cinquemani

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

75. Depeche Mode, Music for the Masses

Communication is a recurring theme on Depeche Mode’s landmark Music for the Masses, and from the sampled radio broadcast of “To Have and to Hold” to the collage of grunts and moans of “I Want You Now” and the use of chamber choirs on “Sacred” and “Pimpf,” voices play a pivotal role in conveying Martin Gore’s missives of repentance and redemption. The high drama that’s so often proven to be the band’s Achilles’ 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 band’s music wouldn’t truly meet the masses until 1990’s Violator, Music for the Masses stands as an early masterpiece of the synth-pop genre. Cinquemani

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

74. Cocteau Twins, Treasure

No, you still can’t make out a damn thing that Elizabeth Frazer sings on Treasure. But you don’t 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 “Lorelei,” you’ll swear you’re speaking her language. Robin Guthrie’s hypnotic guitar playing, by turns majestic and muscular, is everything that dream-pop guitar should be—if not for My Bloody Valentine, maybe all it ever would be. Critics sometimes protested that the Cocteau Twins shouldn’t really be considered a rock band at all, and that’s fine by me: When “Donimo” closes the album with operatic splendor, it’s clear that they’re something far more special. Cole

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

73. Hüsker Dü, Zen Arcade

With 1984’s Zen Arcade, Hüsker Dü married their fast and furious brand of punk with swirling psychedelica, elaborate noise arrangements, and a newfound melodious side. Bob Mould’s 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 “Turn on the News.” 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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

72. Sonic Youth, Sister

Overshadowed both critically and commercially by its successor, Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth’s 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 “Schizophrenia” interject a gorgeous haze into a sad, understated song about a friend’s crazy sister that immediately signaled a new era in the band’s 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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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 Anderson’s cool, detached yogi. Years removed from the idyllic anticipation of “This Woman’s Work,” The Dreaming is a violently singular work that places its creator’s emotions in their most natural environment: inscrutable and volatile. Each song, from the pedagogically impatient “Sat in Your Lap” to the trap-door hysterics of “Get Out of My House,” is a Joyce-worthy confluence of footnotes-to-be, and the key keeps getting tantalizingly passed between tracks via Bush’s darting tongue. Henderson

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

70. Lou Reed, New York

A poison-pen letter to his hometown, Lou Reed’s 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-‘80s NYC, acting as a grimy catalogue of police shootings, bigotry, and murder, Reed’s 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 “Halloween Parade,” 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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

69. The Smiths, Strangeways, Here We Come

Whether or not Strangeways, Here We Come ended the Smiths’s brief career with their best album has been the subject of considerable debate for nearly a quarter century, but it definitively stands as the band’s most lush, richest work. Johnny Marr’s 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 Joyce’s rhythm section are actually given the chance to shine, which was rarely the case on the band’s 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 rock’s most influential bands. Keefe

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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 Costello’s Get Happy!! is typically considered a genre detour, more like 1981’s 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, Bowie’s misguided stab at R&B from five years earlier, to see how sincerely Costello inhabits the style’s 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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

67. XTC, Skylarking

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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

66. The Replacements, Tim

On the continuum of ‘80s rock acts with a pronounced rock n’ 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 ‘50s tropes with propulsive glee. There’s a glimmer of punk attitude in all of Tim’s hurtling songs, but each one is too piercingly romantic and sincere to fit into that genre; witness “Kiss Me on the Bus,” 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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

65. Run-D.M.C., Raising Hell

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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

64. Pretenders, Pretenders

The Pretenders’ debut is notable not only for the pitch-perfect execution of the band’s 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 “Brass in Pocket,” 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 n’ roll is about charisma, and as tracks like “Stop Your Sobbing” and “Private Life” prove, the Pretenders not only had a cache of the stuff, but were well-versed in how to showcase it. Liedel

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

63. Tina Turner, Private Dancer

Like another mega-successful pop monster, Michael Jackson’s 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 “What’s Love Got to Do with It” and the sultry ultimatum “Better Be Good to Me” 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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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 ‘80s. The album fuses pop and R&B with funk and jazz elements (the three-part “I Want Your Sex” 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 wasn’t luring some young thing into his bed with gin and tonic and pleas of “c-c-c-come on,” the middle stretch of the album found him sounding off on such patented ‘80s signposts as materialism and heroin addiction. Cinquemani

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

61. Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense

Inseparable from Jonathan Demme’s concert doc of the same name, arguably the finest concert film ever made, and subject to endless hemming and hawing among Talking Heads’ diehards for the elisions made to said concert’s 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 band’s 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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

60. Madonna, True Blue

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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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 it’s about as close to pop as Costello has ever gotten. There’s 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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

58. Echo & the Bunnymen, Ocean Rain

Black-velvet rock with a distinct romantic bent, Echo & the Bunnymen’s fourth and best album, Ocean Rain, flirts with ridiculous excess but remains sturdily in check, anchored by Ian McCulloch’s 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 “The Yo-Yo Man” to hint at dramatic excess without ever veering into outright theatricality. Cataldo

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

57. Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska

Strip the bombastic showmanship from Bruce Springsteen’s 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 “Atlantic City.” Incorporating such far-flung influences as Suicide, whose desperate whoops Springteen emulates on the grim, haunting “Highway Patrolman,” it’s a desolate sonic landscape that’s leagues more progressive than anything he recorded before or after. Cataldo

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

56. Talk Talk, Spirit of Eden

Opener “The Rainbow,” a deconstructed blues song splayed out over seven minutes, sets the perfect tone for Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden, the song’s 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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

55. Kate Bush, The Sensual World

It’s hard to pin down what makes Kate Bush’s 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 music’s most wildly expressive voices, Bush takes each song further than she has to, resulting in an album that forms its own unique world. Cataldo

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

54. 808 State, 90

If 90 was “Pacific 202” and 30 minutes of tape noise, it’d still be a stone-cold classic. But 808 State’s 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 who’d spent enough time in the club to know, 90 doesn’t 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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

53. Prince, Dirty Mind

Prince, unlike George Michael, doesn’t feel the need to justify sex, that it’s natural, it’s good. He’s content to let his dick do the talking, without apology. But Prince isn’t simply shooting his dithering load on this 1980 breakthrough, he’s radically redefining sex, its expression and power. Just as the album’s 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 daddy’s 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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

51. The Smiths, The Smiths

There’s no reason why a mordant, sexually frustrated disciple of Oscar Wilde who loved punk but crooned like a malfunctioning Sinatra should’ve 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 ‘80s. On classics like “Hand in Glove” (which had Morrissey outing himself before anyone had even thought to speculate about this sexuality) and “This Charming Man,” Morrissey says a lot but always insinuates more. Though that’s not the case on “Suffer Little Children,” 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 Britpop’s sacred city: “Manchester, so much to answer for.” Cole

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

49. Tracy Chapman, Tracy Chapman

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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

48. Michael Jackson, Bad

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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

47. Eurythmics, Touch

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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

46. Sinéad O’Connor, The Lion and the Cobra

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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

45. Roxy Music, Avalon

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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

43. Janet Jackson, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814

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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

42. New Order, Movement

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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

41. Peter Gabriel, So

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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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, Jones’s dubby take on “Use Me” is no patch on Withers’s original. A minor chink in the armor.) With backing from Sly & Robbie, Jones’s Nightclubbing performs double duty, building up the singer’s legend even as it makes attempts at deconstructing it (as in “Art Groupie,” in which she enunciates “Touch me in a sculpture” so that it sounds like “Touch penis sculpture”). But the boogie masterpiece “Pull Up to the Bumper” removes such academicism from the table entirely. Henderson

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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 that’s 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: “Unsatisfied” is a jagged ballad on which Westerberg howls his lungs out, while “Androgynous” 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 “I Will Dare,” but the album’s really remarkable moments arrive whenever the group dares to leave their hardcore comfort zone. Jones

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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 that’s still being imitated today. The musical backing may be spare, like the faint guitar shimmer and lonely hi-hat smack of “Just Like Honey,” or it may be dense, the roiling chaos of “In a Hole,” but it remains effective throughout, leaving each song encased in a thick viscous shell. Cataldo

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

37. Guns n’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction

The Sunset Strip didn’t spew the decade’s noisiest music. It just produced the most popular noise. In some cases, the sound disguised an iffy supply of fury. Despite initially boasting what would’ve been one of the most nasty-as-we-wanna-be covers ever attached to a diamond-selling blockbuster (Robert Williams’s comic-strip panel depicting the aftermath of robot rape) before caving into retailer pressure, and beyond such liquor-soaked speed-metal anthems as “You’re Crazy” and “Welcome to the Jungle,” the bleeding heart at the center of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” proves Axl Rose was always one good bender away from getting all “November Rain” on us. Henderson

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

36. Pixies, Surfer Rosa

The scary thing about Surfer Rosa is that the songs are so damn catchy you’re in danger of not only deciphering the initially incomprehensible lyrics, but of singing them out loud. Which is great, since “Bone Machine” has a memorable bridge about being molested by a priest, “Broken Face” is yet another terrific Pixies song dedicated to the inbred, and “Cactus” 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 Fancis’s trippy scuba fantasy, “Where Is My Mind?,” and Kim Deal’s “Gigantic” ode to the well-endowed), a fact which owes, more often than not, to Joey Santiago’s endless supply of otherworldly guitar leads. Cole

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

35. Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A.

The ironic misinterpretation of Born in the U.S.A.’s title track has been well-documented, and persists as a rather inane flap as it pertains to the album’s real import: Bruce Springsteen’s 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 “I’m on Fire” to the wistful “My Hometown,” 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 “Dancing in the Dark,” Born in the U.S.A. propelled Springsteen not only into a pop-radio staple in the ‘80s, but cast him as the voice of the disillusioned American everyman. Liedel

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

34. Pixies, Doolittle

Doolittle is their manifesto for ‘90s alt rock: dark, offbeat, slow-churning, humorously grim, and peppered with the kind of loud-soft dynamics that exemplify both the Pixies’ 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 band’s lyrics. When Black Francis screams, “God is seven!,” on “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” there’s little doubt about the gravity of the message—or where Billy Corgan found his inspiration. Liedel

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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 “Holiday” and a “Lucky Star,” both released as singles in the span of two consecutive days (albeit an ocean apart), is still pretty untouchable. Wistful and eager to please, Madonna’s sparkling ditties aren’t so much “post-disco” as they are “disco ain’t going nowhere, so shut up and dance.” Like a heavenly body atop the surging underground currents of every synth-heavy dance subgenre that preceded her, Madonna’s cultural co-opting is nothing if not fervent. Henderson

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

32. Eric B. & Rakim, Paid in Full

Many would argue that the late ‘80s was the absolute pinnacle for hip-hop, and it’s difficult to argue against Paid in Full being a benchmark of the era. Rakim’s 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 didn’t 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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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 “What Have You Done for Me Lately” and “You Can Be Mine” 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 “important” 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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

30. Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation

It’s 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 “Silver Rocket,” which derails its hooky, slithering guitar line to plunge into a two-minute-long sea of noise, and “Total Trash,” which recalls Television with its rambling, seven-minute-plus exploration of a looping melody, buttressed by increasingly frantic walls of noise. Cataldo

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

29. Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man

Pop goes Leonard Cohen and it soars. I discovered this poet prophet through McCabe & Mrs. Miller, his deadpan baritone passing throughout Robert Altman’s 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 that’s 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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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. Mani’s thundering basslines and John Squire’s 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 Leckie’s 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 Majesty’s airwaves in the ‘90s. Jones

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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 icon’s 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 decade’s quirkiest pop albums. “Ashes to Ashes” is absolutely mesmerizing, and “Fashion” almost sets the tone for the entire decade by itself, and even beyond these singles are countless examples of utterly flawless pop. That it’s difficult to even notice Brian Eno’s absence is a testament to how convincing this madcap milieu really is, and affirms Bowie’s reputation as the maharishi of avant-garde pop. Jones

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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 year’s Bad As Me, isn’t winding down anytime soon. Here, he trades barroom ballads for disorienting, percussive songs that sound like a junkyard come to life, and on “Down, Down, Down” and “16 Shells from a 30.6” 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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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 band’s 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 who’s never actually heard Kraftwerk’s 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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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 band’s greatest accomplishment. With “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With or Without You,” three of the band’s most aching, impassioned songs back to back to back, the band became lords and emperors of anthemic ‘80s rock. Perhaps on a more meaningful level, though, the universality of The Joshua Tree completed U2’s evolution from Irish ruffians to globe-straddling rock heroes. “Outside is America,” Bono sings on “Bullet the Blue Sky,” prescient to the fact that with the album’s astounding success, U2 no longer belonged to Dublin, but the world. Liedel

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

23. New Order, Power, Corruption & Lies

From the instantly recognizable surf-guitar riff that opens “Age of Consent” to the poignant, observational lyrics of “Leave Me Alone,” New Order’s second album finds the band working with broader sonic and emotional palettes than on their debut. Movement was apiece with Joy Division’s dismal worldview (the suicide of a dear friend does not often prompt a positive reassessment of one’s lot in life), but Power, Corruption & Lies marks the real beginning of New Order’s career. Sweet pop songs like “The Village” are juxtaposed by beautiful, melancholy compositions, none of which stand out as elegantly as “Your Silent Face.” With Bernard Sumner’s fragile, boyish voice giving the album a human center, the dance-rock pioneers had crafted their first perfect pop record. Cole

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

22. Cyndi Lauper, She’s 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 don’t want to, and the paradoxes of being a girl in a society that doesn’t respect you. And maybe it’s because Cyndi Lauper is a girl that the album still doesn’t get the respect it deserves from chauvinistic rock critics that would hide her away from the rest of the world—or maybe it’s because two of its greatest songs are covers, which trivializes her outstanding retaining of Prince’s pronouns for her take on “When You Were Mine,” one of pop music’s most radical sleights of hand. Like the fluttering production of “All Through the Night,” 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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

21. Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes

Folk-punk pioneer Gordon Gano wrote the songs on Violent Femmes’ 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, Gano’s 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 it’s also musically sophisticated and deftly executed, with infectious hooks and harmonies (“Please Do Not Go”) and some of the slickest acoustic ax riffs and tightest rhythm sections (“Blister in the Sun,” “Kiss Off”) put to tape. Cinquemani

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

20. Madonna, Like a Prayer

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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

19. Paul Simon, Graceland

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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

18. N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton

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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

17. R.E.M., Document

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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

16. The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead

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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

15. The Cure, Disintegration

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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

14. Tom Waits, Rain Dogs

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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

13. R.E.M., Murmur

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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

12. Beastie Boys, Licensed to Ill

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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

11. Prince, Sign o’ the Times

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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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 father’s father, but after an Emily Brontë 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 haunting—lush 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 she’s 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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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 ‘60s utopianism and overachieving, carnivalesque sonic display of 3 Feet High & Rising (as they later would over Deee-Lite’s plastique-fantastique, vitamin C-infused inversion of underground house). But you can’t listen to Prince Paul’s stitchery with the Funkadelic bounce of “Me Myself and I,” the saxy “Potholes in My Lawn,” or the scratching of “Buddy” and still hold that against them. Henderson

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

8. Prince, 1999

If Prince’s 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 decade’s most versatile, least predictable pop superstar. Positioned between—and embodying the strengths of both—the 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 communiqué from the nexus of naked funk and sexual obsession. “Some people tell me I’ve got great legs.” Nope, this is not your grandfather’s rhythm and blues. Henderson

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

7. Joy Division, Closer

The fact that Joy Division’s very name is synonymous with ‘80s post-punk despite their having released only one album in the decade speaks to Closer’s looming impact on the genre it helped propel. A similar shadow was cast by frontman Ian Curtis’s death shortly before the album’s release, lending Closer an added layer of mystique to the band’s already-bittersweet unfulfilled promise. Though the remaining members would go on to form seminal synth-pop group New Order, Closer exists as Joy Division’s magnificent epithet. Its songs are beautifully crafted dirges, with thrumming, ghostly synths and plumbing basslines bolstering Curtis’s imaginative but morbid lyricism. Liedel

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

6. Talking Heads, Remain in Light

Paul Simon’s Graceland gets much of the credit for the revival of African-inspired pop music in the mid-‘80s, 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 “Once in a Lifetime” as a perfect microcosm of everything that’s 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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

5. Beastie Boys, Paul’s Boutique

Those who dismissed the music of the Beastie Boys as hackneyed frat-boy gimmickry—and those who expected these three white Jews to descend into novelty caricatures—were forced to eat their words with the release of Paul’s 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. Paul’s 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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

4. The Clash, London Calling

A large part of the musical narrative of the ‘80s 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

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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 album’s 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 Squad’s most creative productions, it’s still catchy as all hell), but it’s a testament to Public Enemy’s power and intelligence that the album’s ferocious political outrage and its damning portraits of institutionalized racism and class warfare are still as relevant as they’ve ever been. Keefe

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

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 “mature,” 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 “The Beautiful Ones.” From here to there, life to death, there’s a startling, telling fixation on movement. This is, after all, a companion piece to a film that ostentatiously depicts the Kid’s rise to fame. And there’s no fall here, only one gorgeous climax after another, immaculately and luxuriously sustained from beginning to end. Gonzalez

The 100 Best Albums of the 1980s

1. Michael Jackson, Thriller

What additional praise can be heaped on Michael Jackson’s genre-mashing magnum opus except to say that even the lesser hits like “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” are perfectly rendered pop gems? That seven of the album’s 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 fantasy—a 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 Jones’s Diane

The actress speaks at length about the little pieces of herself that she sees in her character.



Mary Kay Place
Photo: IFC Films

Diane, the eponymous character of film critic, programmer, and documentarian
Kent Jones’s 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), who’s battling addiction. Place is in every scene of the film, and she’s mesmerizing in each one, for showing how Diane’s 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 women—often mothers—who’re predisposed to putting others first and leading from the heart. Maybe that’s why Diane felt like a perfect fit for the actress. Throughout Jones’s film, Diane drops by houses and hospital rooms, looking to stay “only but for a minute.” But her business masks a deeper pain and loneliness, and the film allows Kay to bring to the surface certain rhythms that she hasn’t 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 “kitchen dancer.”

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 communities—they 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.

Diane’s 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. She’s 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 wasn’t 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 sober—that’s a huge weight off her shoulders—she doesn’t know what to do with herself.

Diane’s relationship with her son is interesting. He lies to her, he bullies her, and at times she stands up to him. She’s no-nonsense in dealing with him. I’m curious to know your personal thoughts about this dynamic of their relationship?

She’s definitely codependent and enabling her son by doing his laundry. She doesn’t know how to let go. Maybe she’s never been to an Al-Anon meeting—or has and rejected it. So, they have this dynamic, and they feed off each other. They’re hooked in. She’s 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.

There’s 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 “Handyman” in Smooth Talk.

I’m a big kitchen dancer—with 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 song—Leon Russell’s “Out in the Woods”—because it’s fun to dance to, and the lyrics were appropriate for Diane. Kent was game for that. It showed another side of Diane that we hadn’t seen. It was from when she was at a simpler time in her life and didn’t have shameful thoughts and was just out having fun.

We see what makes Diane come undone. So I guess I’m also curious to know what makes you lose your temper or patience?

I come from a family that doesn’t hold things in. We let the freak flag fly and then it’s totally over and done with. Explosions and then we’re 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 circumstances—and I can if called upon—but I generally don’t.

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?

I’m “both/and” instead of “either/or.” I get real orderly and then I get real spontaneous and have to start all over again. Diane’s driving connects the scenes and shows that monotony that she experiences. Oh my God, we’re back in that car again driving to someone’s house! It’s not a walking community. And it’s 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 she’s not patient. I strive to be more patient. I can be patient and sometimes I can be very impatient. Once again, it’s a “both/and” 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: “It’s long overdue that you were the star!”

Thank you for saying it’s long overdue. I enjoy every minute of it, but I love ensemble work. It’s interesting to find a rhythm and exchange words and movement with other people. It’s fun. It’s been interesting to have this leading part, but I love the other work as well.

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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.



Jia Zhang-ke
Photo: Cohen Media Group

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 government’s 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 2000’s Platform, in which young people struggle to adapt to China’s increasing Westernization, Jia has been creating a kind of unofficial history of his homeland, quietly defying his government’s 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.

Jia’s 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 Jia’s latest, Ash Is Purest White, Zhao reprises the role she played in 2002’s Unknown Pleasures: Qiao Qiao, a strong-willed woman from Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, this time over a span of 17 years that starts when she’s 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 White’s 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 government’s 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 “Y.M.C.A.”?

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 didn’t 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 “Y.M.C.A.” and “Go West” [the Pet Shop Boys song that was a motif in Jia’s Mountains May Depart].

The reason that we liked “Y.M.C.A.” 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 film—you hear it again and again—is “Drunk for Life” 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 Woo’s 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 “How Much Love Can Be Repeated?” 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 Zhao’s character off stage, when you see her reaction watching this performance. Mind you, the on-stage part was shot 12 years ago, but Zhao’s 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. That’s why it gives you a sense of nostalgia, evoking what happened in the past.

You’ve 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 weren’t government-approved. Digital video also made it much easier for your films to be copied and disseminated in China when they weren’t 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 didn’t 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.

It’s 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 you’re 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 that’s 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 emotions—the interpersonal relationships between people—evolves 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 I’m 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.

You’ve 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 government’s 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 don’t 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 that’s not the only reason why I make films. The most important thing for me is to understand that that’s not the end goal, so I don’t 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. That’s 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

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Every Cannes Palme d’Or Winner of the 2000s Ranked

There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of Cannes’s most prestigious prize.



Every Cannes Palme d’Or Winner of the 2000s Ranked
Photo: Wild Bunch

There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious top prize, the Palme d’Or. These films, in recent years especially, tend to have a sense of importance about them (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11), frequently due to their sociopolitical awareness of the world (Laurent Cantet’s The Class), or of specific societal ills (Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). Very occasionally, the Palme d’Or goes to a bold, experimental, and divisive vision from a well-liked auteur (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), but more often it’s awarded to a film in the lineup that the most people on the Cannes jury can probably agree is good (Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake). And in less than three months, we’ll see if Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s jury will follow any sort of predictable formula when it announces its winners.

You’ll find us on the Croisette this May, covering most of the titles in Cannes’s competition slate. Until then, enjoy our ranking of the Palme d’Or winner from the 2000s. Sam C. Mac

Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on May 1, 2018.

The Son’s Room

19. The Son’s Room (2001)

Halfway through The Son’s 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 “without hardship you will be guided”—wink, wink); allows her boyfriend to exalt grass (when high, the boy says he’s “looking at the universe”); and initiates group lip-synching during the family’s car trips. Nicola Piovani’s score grotesquely heightens the joy behind every smile, meaning disaster is inevitable. As Moretti delves deeper into Giovanni’s 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 Eno’s “By This River,” which blares from a car radio as the family stands near the sea that killed their Andrea: “Here we are stuck by this river/You and I underneath a sky/That’s ever falling down, down, down.” 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

Fahrenheit 911

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, Moore’s compilation of the Bush I administration’s 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 Moore’s 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 wouldn’t call a dying man an ambulance if it meant getting the money shot of the guy croaking). At least it’s some kind of mercy that he spends very little time on screen. Gonzalez


17. Amour (2012)

There’s a deceptiveness lurking deep within Amour, an insincerity that colors the drama, recasting it as a ploy. Whereas across earlier films Michael Haneke’s predilection for deceit served a high-minded, if still somewhat suspect, intellectual purpose (an interrogation of privilege and meaning in Caché, 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 wouldn’t 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, we’d all lose our dignity in the end. Calum Marsh

I, Daniel Blake

16. I, Daniel Blake (2016)

English stand-up comedian Dave Johns brings the sort of spontaneous energy to his eponymous character that’s consistently made Loach’s films worth keeping up with. But Blake’s 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 they’re pulled into increasingly harrowing places, to make the film a more successful one than Loach’s last few, but it’s 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 1969’s Kes and 1994’s Ladybird Ladybird, is distinctly different from the Loach of today—and the soapbox-prone I, Daniel Blake reaffirms how unlikely it is for that to change. Mac

The Class

15. The Class (2008)

When a plot finally emerges, it’s all about the quandaries of privileging principle (and principal) or empiricism, duty or personal preference, questions that have been implicit all along, even in kids’ protests that they’re always being picked on or favored. As a clever late twist suggests, the interactions themselves are almost all riffs on Socratic debates—usually, the teacher seems to be asking students to verify their claims so he can give himself time to rebut—and as director Laurent Cantet said at The Class’s New York Film Festival press conference, the school’s a place “where democracy is at stake.” Instead of the usual righteous monologues, this is a film of dialogue and dialogues, in which the bickering teachers’ conferences begin to echo the kids’ troublemaking and skepticism but for the adults’ 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 Wiseman’s documentary State Legislature or Advise and Consent. David Phelps

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