The BBC Radio 2 listeners weighed in on the ultimate 80s album recently and the final list was discussed on Sirius/XM’s Debatable last week. I happened to be listening at the time and couldn’t resist calling in to try swaying Mark Goodman to Duran Duran’s Rio (which only finished 12th?!). I don’t think it worked (he asked if I was related to Lori Majewski) but I couldn’t stop thinking about the “of the 80s” aspect of the question.
The 80s were a vibrant decade full of color and personality. There were some incredible albums released in the 80s and it is hard to quibble with many of the choices on the BBC list (found here). However, I think some albums transcend any given decade while others fully embody it. With that in mind, I find myself excluding such landmark albums as Thriller, Purple Rain, and Joshua Tree. They would have been among the best albums of the decade in the 70s, 90s, or even the 00s. Timeless works.
So, if we are talking about the “ultimate 80s albums”, I am looking for albums that embody that decade. Would they have been just as successful in other decades? Perhaps. But they are mostly remembered best within the social and technological framework of the decade when they were recorded. When they were released matters just as much as the music in a way. With that in mind, here are ten of my “ultimate 80s albums” in random order. I’ll probably think of twenty more tomorrow….
Def Leppard – Hysteria (1987)
No album better captures the sound of glam-metal in the 1980s. Purists will never forgive the Lep for betraying their New Wave of British Metal roots to pursue pop stardom but this Mutt Lange’s produced record epitomizes the glossy sonic sheen that so many bands sought over the last half of the decade. None of them came close.
The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead (1986)
While Morrissey’s solo album Viva Hate was my entry point into his music with and without The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead remains the landmark 80s alternative album. Given the sound of the decade, the jangly guitars of Johnny Marr sound completely alien at times but no other decade needed a band like The Smiths to remind us the success is only an illusion.
Phil Collins – Face Value (1981)
Gated-reverb drums dominated the decade and Phil Collins was the man to stumble into the sound. It was almost as revolutionary as the drummer from a prog-rock 70s band becoming a global pop star. Truly, anything was possible in the 1980s. Duh-duh duh-duh duh-duh duh-duh duh duh…..
Guns-n-Roses – Appetite For Destruction (1987)
More so than any 80s album, this record managed to destroy an entire genre instantly. After hearing this, it was hard to go back to Poison and RATT albums. Everything felt a bit silly compared to this monster of an album. To this day, it is the greatest rock-n-roll album released while I was walking this earth listening to music. Everything they did after this? Hated it.
Depeche Mode – Music For the Masses (1987)
The musical growth from “New Life” to “Never Let Me Down Again” is hard to fathom. Maturing into something dark and sinister while managing to sell-out stadiums takes a special album and Music For the Masses retained the synth-pop magic of the band while also setting the table for Violator – which would sound brilliant in any decade.
George Michael – Faith (1987)
Arguably, the finest pop album of pop’s finest decade but Faith was even more than that. The crossover success of Michael Jackson and Prince helped break down industry barriers but George Michael doesn’t get enough credit for doing the same. The most successful white artist on the Black Album and Singles charts (great article on that here), Michael’s album proved that great music could not be contained within any one genre. Today, popular music embodies all styles and there is nothing left to cross over into. Thank you, George Michael.
Cyndi Lauper – She’s So Unusual (1983)
I’m not sure the world was ready for Cyndi Lauper prior to the 1980s. Her personality shines on She’s So Unusual and it is full of the attitude and style that made the 1980s so fun. While I’ve enjoyed all her albums on some level, this remains so “80s” that everything else felt a little bland.
Run DMC – Raising Hell (1986)
While I was already a huge fan of hip hop by 1986, it was Raising Hell that really elevated the genre into the mainstream consciousness. It has never left and is probably the most influential style of popular music today. Bringing in Aerosmith on “Walk This Way” salvaged the rock band’s waning career and shot Run DMC into the stratosphere commercially. If you were a suburban kid hanging at the mall in 1986, you knew every word on this album.
New Order – Power, Corruption, and Lies (1983)
While Joy Division’s Closer is, technically, an 80s album, the bleak masterpiece sounds like 1979 to me. The post-punk scene was already changing in 1980 and it took New Order a few years to collect themselves after losing Ian Curtis. The massive “Blue Monday” marked their arrival and Power, Corruption, and Lies established how a “rock” band could make dance music. That blueprint has been in use ever since (see: The Killers).
Duran Duran – Rio (1982)
The artwork. The videos. The sound. It was a soundtrack to the attitude of the 80s where anyone could be anything they wished. Write catchy pop-rock anthems, cast yourself as globe-trotting James Bond meets Indiana Jones rock stars in flashy videos and then watch it come true. Live too fast, watch it all fall apart, regroup, recover, and come back smarter and better than ever. The 80s were all of that and more.