Sunday, February 13, 2005

The Top 19 Albums Of The 1980s


Who: Joy Division
What: Closer
When: Released July, 1980
Why: A little trip inside the mind of a manic depressive (sans mania). An almost unparalleled vibe of doom and gloom; I say almost only because a parallel may exist somewhere – certainly none comes to mind. Just imagine if this album had also included “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” the band’s most notable – and blackest – song from the era. Light a candle, turn up Side Two, and sink into the abyss. More here.

Scary Monsters

Who: David Bowie
What: Scary Monsters
When: September, 1980
Why: The end of a remarkable string of albums by the Thin White Duke. From Ziggy Stardust in 1972 through this 1980 classic, an extended peak of almost unmatched length. Scary Monsters was the last of the line, but what an end. Bookended by two versions of “It’s No Game” – one tight, one loose (a la Neil Young) – every song is memorable, led by “Ashes To Ashes” (the album’s biggest hit, and a tremendous sing-along) and “Kingdom Come” (a Tom Verlaine cover with perfectly effective affected vocals by Bowie). More here.

Dirty Mind

Who: Prince
What: Dirty Mind
When: October 1, 1980
Why: Whoa. It’s hard to overstate what a slap in the face this album was when I first heard it in college. I was a little late in coming to it. I bought it used in the early spring of 1981, but I listened to little else for a solid month after that purchase. It’s mixture of punk ethos, funk sensibility, DIY attitude and unbridled sexuality was like nothing I had ever heard before. Excluding his Royal Badass Self, there’s been precious little like it since. Songs like “Party Up” and “Uptown” were meant to rock, and that they did. Songs like “Sister” and “Head” were meant to shock, and that they did. And “When You Were Mine” still stands as probably the greatest, most infectious pop song ever written. One look at the album cover let’s you know what this guy has in mind – to throw you down on the rusty bedsprings and rock your world in every way you can imagine. Don’t forget the headphones. More here.

Remain In Light

Who: Talking Heads
What: Remain In Light
When: October 8, 1980
Why: Unlike Dirty Mind, I snagged this one on its release date. I spent that entire month of October, 1980 listening to it over and over and over. To this date, hundreds (thousands?) of listens later, I don’t think I’ve heard everything that was thrown into the awesome three-song first side of the album. The entire album feels like the butterfly that emerged from the chrysalis of “I Zimbra” on Fear Of Music. This is especially the case on the Side One closer, “The Great Curve,” a mind-boggling piece of production by Brian Eno and David Byrne. Four separate overlapping, interlocking vocal tracks weave over, around and through each other like an audio Escher print. A stunning aural tapestry. More here.

Computer World

Who: Kraftwerk
What: Computer World
When: May, 1981
Why: The beginning of electronica and techno music? Amost certainly. Just about any strain of electronic dance music you can think of from the last 20 years can be traced back to this album. My first notion that something new was afoot here was during the summer I spent in Detroit (1981) when the black radio stations (WGPR? Probably.) started playing “Pocket Calculator” and then “Home Computer” in heavy rotation. It may not seem so radical now, but the idea of a Detroit Urban station playing a couple of songs by a quartet of German technophiles was pretty mindbending stuff in the summer of 1981. More here.

Wild Gift

Who: X
What: Wild Gift
When: May 1, 1981
Why: It took a while, but the punk ethos eventually found its way across the country to Los Angeles. The scene was captured in Penelope Spheeris’ movie The Decline of Western Civilization. Prominently featured in that movie was this band of sun-drenched yet pallid malcontents. What hits you first about this album, their sophomore effort, are the eccentric harmonies between John Doe and Exene Cervenka (husband and wife, at the time). The eccentricity mostly lay on Exene’s side. John’s melodies were rich and smooth, a mellow baritone. Exene’s harmonies were wailed in a slightly flat tone, and the result was disturbing, memorable and beautiful.

The second thing that hits you about this album is the sense of furious, desperate love that suffuses so many of the songs as they try to make sense of the Doe/Cervenka relationship. To be married in the midst of such a nihilistic, hedonistic scene was an act of almost utter temerity, and songs like “We’re Desperate,” “Adult Books,” “In This House That I Call Home,” and “When Our Love Passed Out On The Couch” grapple with the difficulties of trying to hold on to a relationship in the midst of a hurricane of squalor. Strong stuff.

Of course, the third thing that hits you about the album is that it rocks. Hard. No one before or since has played a punk guitar with as much diffidence, amusement or killer riffs as has Billy Zoom. More here.

Under The Big Black Sun

Who: X
What: Under The Big Black Sun
When: July 1, 1982
Why: The follow-up to Wild Gift, Under The Big Black Sun continued to explore the territory of relationships in the midst of decadence. Added to the mix, however, was an exploration of the grief engendered by the death of Exene’s sister, Mary. Even more strong stuff from a band that was quickly getting used to doling it out with a ladle. These two albums represented the peak of L.A. punk, and really a peak of American rock music in the ‘80’s. X expressed a purely American sensibility; in a manner that evoked their roots in country and rockabilly music, while updating it to a now timeless punk sound. More here.

Imperial Bedroom

Who: Elvis Costello
What: Imperial Bedroom
When: July 2, 1982
Why: Elvis Costello took another giant step away from his angry young man persona – one which always had a whiff of artifice about it – with this bit of transcendent Tin-Pan Alley. The mature themes of the album – pain, regret, betrayal, shame – have a much deeper resonance than the themes of anger, spite and revenge that he had explored on earlier albums. The tunes, likewise, had a much more mature feeling, a wider range of instrumentation to go along with more complex chord structures and progressions. In all, an album that was probably much truer to Costello’s deeper, more traditional sense of popular music, but every bit a classic on a par with This Year’s Model and Armed Forces. More here.

Violent Femmes

Who: Violent Femmes
What: Violent Femmes
When: January 1, 1983
Why: 1983 was the Year of the Debut as two of the most notable first-time efforts hit the streets. First to drop was Violent Femmes, a raw and distinctive hybrid of punk/new wave/rockabilly/blues from a trio of Cheeseheads featuring a standup drummer, an acoustic bassist and a singer/songwriter of singular vision and clarity. Gordon Gano blended the jittery angst of adolescence with a mature sense of subject matter and an apocalyptic vision that tended towards Old Testament imagery. An explosion of an opener that could never quite be sustained over the course of a long career. More here.


Who: R.E.M.
What: Murmur
When: April, 1983
Why: The second notable inaugural of 1983 came hard on the heels of Violent Femmes, and was in many ways its polar opposite. Far North vs. Deep South. Hard-Edged vs. Smooth. Explosive vs. Insidious. Violent vs. Murmured. Murmur is in fact one of the most perfectly titled albums in history. The word is considered to be the most sonorous in the English language, and that perfectly matches the languid feel of the album. Likewise, few album covers so perfectly match their musical contents as this one. The songs are aural kudzu, drawing you closer and closer as you lean in to try to understand the language, until you find yourself covered by the tentacles and wrapped in its fuzzy embrace. The combination of jangling Byrds-like guitars, distant vocals and harmonies (always subsumed in the mix), and cryptic lyrics pointed the way to a new Southern Sound in 1983. More here.

Let It Be

Who: The Replacements
What: Let It Be
When: October 2, 1984
Why: This album was when the Placemats held it on a knife’s edge. As they moved from dissolute drunkards to a real band, Let It Be was the album when they held both sides of their collective personality within their hands. The result is their best, most entertaining album. You want adolescent hijinks? It doesn’t get much more adolescent than “Gary’s Got A Boner” or “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out.” You want sensitive tunesmithing? “Unsatisfied” and “Answering Machine” fill the bill nicely. You want a KISS cover? How ‘bout “Black Diamond?” The best of the ‘80s brand of alternative rock. More here.

The Queen Is Dead

Who: The Smiths
What: The Queen Is Dead
When: June, 1986
Why: One of the seriously great bands of the ‘80s, but not everyone’s cup of tea. Morrissey and Johnny Marr have gone on to have decent careers, but together their partnership was on a par with Lennon & McCartney. The strengths of each perfectly dovetailed with the weaknesses of the other. To put it more bluntly, Marr was the perfect anchor to Morrissey’s too frequent flights of fancy. Add to that a kickin’ rhythm section and you have the greatness that was the Smiths in the mid-80s. Like their generation-mates in New Order, they are best remembered as a singles band, but this is the one album that really coheres enough to make this list. The subject is, of course, Morrissey, the struggles of his love life, and the resultant effects on his psyche. More than one generation of pale young boys have now grown up taking to heart the emotional messages of “Never Had No One Ever,” “Cemetry Gates.” “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side” and “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.” All the maudlin crooning is perfectly counterbalanced by Marr’s ringing and shuffling guitar. A near perfect album that never seems to age. More here.

Sign O The Times

Who: Prince
What: Sign “O” The Times
When: July 6, 1987
Why: The second great album of the ‘80s by His Royal Badness. This one was a double album featuring songs of almost every stripe. The eponymous opener was really unlike anything Prince had previously done, a sinuous epic encompassing AIDS, smack, gangs and the spiritual, all over a minimalist drum & synth line with a touch of Prince’s Hendrixian guitar. As the album goes on soul, house, Sheena Easton and cross-dressing all get thrown into the mix, leading to the album’s other center of gravity, “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man,” the only extant rival to “When You Were Mine” as the greatest and most infectious pop song ever written. A spectacular end to Prince’s eight-year run of unrivaled splendiferousness. More here.

Substance 1987

Who: New Order
What: Substance 1987
When: September 1, 1987
Why: From the shattered remains of Joy Division came New Order, made up of the other three members and the drummer’s girlfriend. While their ‘80s output included several great albums (Power, Corruption & Lies, Low-Life, Brotherhood, Technique), their real forte was the single, which is where this mid-career compilation comes in. While not truly an album, it encompasses the best work, in the best format, of the band that was the best in the world in the mid-80s. The album, like the band, grows in power and performance from their early Joy Division-esque work, through the conceptual breakthrough of “Temptation” and “Blue Monday” until it explodes in the matchless lineup of album-ending songs, “Perfect Kiss,” “Subculture,” “Shellshock,” “State Of The Nation,” “Bizarre Love Triangle,” and “True Faith.” Those six singles truly represent the full flowering of an almost symphonic conception of the dance single. This is spectacular music. More here.

Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart

Who: Camper Van Beethoven
What: Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart
When: May 24, 1988
Why: For their first couple of albums Camper Van had noodled their way through genre-busting mixes of off-the-beat styles (ska, reggae, country, Eastern European balalaika music), along with a medium-sized underground hit with “Take The Skinheads Bowling.” This 1988 album, however, was far beyond noodling. It was a true masterpiece. All of the same elements were there: Eastern European influences (“Tania”), country knock-offs (“O Death,” “Never Go Back”), Zeppelinesque rave-ups (“Waka”) and every song was a keeper. By kicking up the production values and concentrating a little more on the structure of the songs (and by taking a little more time between bong hits?) Camper Van capitalized on all the promise of those first two albums. More here.

Workers Playtime

Who: Billy Bragg
What: Worker’s Playtime
When: October 25, 1988
Why: The most political singer of his generation; the most tenderly romantic singer of his generation; both at the same time. That is Billy Bragg. This album tends towards the romantic side, but no song by the ol’ bloke combines the two quite the aplomb of the album closer, “Waiting For The Great Leap Forward.” “Mixing pop and politics, he asks me what the use is. I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses.” Terrifically clever lyrics combined with a classic chord progression. Almost certainly the single best song Billy ever committed to vinyl. More here.


Who: The Pixies
What: Doolittle
When: March, 1989
Why: The proto-Nirvana. Kurt Cobain often said that he really didn't understand all the fuss about his band, since they basically stole their sound from the Pixies. Listening to Doolittle it is not hard to understand what he was talking about. Nirvana's siganture was in their dynamics -- soft verses followed by loud thrashy choruses. Whether going from loud to soft (as on "Tame") or from loud to louder (as on "Debaser"), those dynamics are much in abundance on this album. The other things much in abundance are, of course, the tunes and hooks. An album with no bad songs (not surprisingly, since the band put out three albums before they released a single crummy song), the tuneful numbers come in rapidfire succession, especially when the album hits its crescendo on Side Two ("La La Love You," "No. 13 Baby," "There Goes My Gun" & "Hey"). More here.


Who: The Cure
What: Disintegration
When: May 1, 1989
Why: A decade bookend to Closer in the dark and darker department. Black and sludgy, few albums have ever explored the dark night of the soul with as much depth as this, the last and best in a string of great Cure albums in the 1980s. The centerpiece of the album is the title song, a despairing look at the decay of a relationship coupled with a droning, hypnotizing bass line and an ever-ratcheting tension. All of this combines to provide a sense of impending doom, the circle of fear and loathing pulling itself tighter and tighter until the oxygen is gone, the mind clouds and the blackness descends. The paragon of a true Cure song. Even though the band ostensibly still exists, they might as well not have bothered, as they would never be able to top this song or this album. More here.

The Stone Roses

Who: The Stone Roses
What: The Stone Roses
When: May 2, 1989
Why: The first and best album from the Madchester mini-invasion at the turn of the decade. So many great songs, beginning with the twin-punch openers, “I Wanna Be Adored” and “She Bangs The Drums,” and ending with the twin-punch closers, “I Am The Resurrection” and “Fools Gold.” No shortage of cheek in these lads. No shortage of great tunes and great playing either. More here.


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