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100 Best Albums of the Eighties

From synth pop and rap to metal and funk, 100 best albums of the Eighties selected by the editors of Rolling Stone

First 10 entries here span the Clash's polyglot punk, Prince's crossover funkadelica, Afro-bop from Talking Heads and Paul Simon and hymns of innocence and experience by U2 and Tracy Chapman.

This has been the first rock & roll decade without revolution, or true revolutionaries, to call its own. The Fifties witnessed nothing less than the birth of the music. The Sixties were rocked by Beatlemania, Motown, Phil Spector, psychedelia and Bob Dylan. The Seventies gave rise to David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, heavy metal, punk and New Wave.

In comparison, the Eighties have been the decade of, among other things, synth pop, Michael Jackson, the compact disc, Sixties reunion tours, the Beastie Boys and a lot more heavy metal. But if the past 10 years haven’t exactly been the stuff of revolution, they have been a critical time of re-assessment and reconstruction. Musicians and audiences alike have struggled to come to terms with rock’s parameters and possibilities, its emotional resonance and often dormant social consciousness.

The following survey of the 100 best albums of the Eighties, as selected by the editors of Rolling Stone, shows that the music and the values it stands for have been richer for the struggle. Punks got older and more articulate in their frustration and rage, while many veteran artists responded to that movement’s challenge with their most vital work in years. And rap transformed the face — and voice — of popular music.

The first 10 entries here span the Clash’s polyglot punk, Prince’s crossover funkadelica, Afro-bop from Talking Heads and Paul Simon and hymns of innocence and experience by U2 and Tracy Chapman. Further down the list, old-timers like Dylan, the Stones and Lou Reed hit new highs; Public Enemy and Run-D.M.C. kicked out some serious streetwise jams; Metallica and Guns N’ Roses established new hard-rock beachheads; and Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth and the Replacements offered definitive statements of postpunk angst. The embarrassment of riches on this list is all the more remarkable, since arthritic radio programming, corporate sponsorship and outbursts of racism and sexism in rap and metal have complicated rock’s present and raised fears for its future.

Best-of lists such as this one are by nature subjective. But rock in the Eighties was like that — lively, varied, contentious and, to some degree, inconclusive. Looking at the best rock has had to offer in the Eighties, it’s clear that there’s plenty of life left in the old beast yet. The next revolution may be just around the corner.

This feature was originally published in the November 16, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone.

madonna first album cover
50

Madonna, ‘Madonna’

Five years after arriving in New York City from her hometown of Pontiac, Michigan, Madonna Louise Ciccone had little to show for a lot of work. By 1982, she had managed to get only a few gigs singing with drummer Stephen Bray’s band, the Breakfast Club, at clubs like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, and the future looked far from bright.

“I had just gotten kicked out of my apartment,” Madonna says, “so the band let me live in their rehearsal space at the Music Building, on Eighth Avenue. Stephen had keys to all the rehearsal rooms, so when I decided to make my own demos, we’d go into other people’s studios at night and use their four-track machines.”

Armed with a tape, Madonna began making the rounds of New York’s dance clubs. “I had heard that a lot of A&R people hung out at the clubs,” she says, “and I thought trying to go see them at their offices would be a waste of time.” It proved a good strategy: Through Mark Kamins, the DJ at Danceteria, the tape found its way to Sire Records, and Madonna was signed by label president Seymour Stein. “Seymour was in the hospital at the time,” she says. “I got signed while he was lying in bed in his boxer shorts.”

The contract with Sire guaranteed just one single, but it had options for recording albums as well. With Kamins producing, Madonna cut the moody disco track “Everybody” as her debut single. But when Sire picked up its option to record an album, she decided to try a different producer. “I wanted someone who’d worked with a lot of female singers,” she says.

Reggie Lucas, the Grammy-winning songwriter who had produced Stephanie Mills and Roberta Flack, was selected. After recording the album’s second single, the Lucas-penned “Physical Attraction,” he and Madonna cut the rest of the album, with the exception of “Holiday,” which was produced by Jellybean Benitez.

“Things were very informal and casual,” Lucas says of the sessions. “It was my first pop project, and she was just a new artist. I had no idea it would be the biggest thing since sliced bread.”

Indeed, initial response to Madonna gave no indication of the mania to follow. It took a year and a half for the album to go gold. But its assured style and sound, as well as Madonna’s savvy approach to videos, helped the singer make the leap from dance diva to pop phenom, and it pointed the direction for a host of female vocalists from Janet Jackson to Debbie Gibson.

“It influenced a lot of people,” says Madonna, who cites Chrissie Hynde and Debbie Harry as her own musical heroes. “I think it stands up well. It just took a long time for people to pay attention to me —and I thank God they did!”

49

The Feelies, ‘Crazy Rhythms’

"Crazy Rhythms is aptly titled," says Bill Million of the Feelies. "There are a lot of weird things going on. We didn't practice much, so we were kind of disjointed when we made the album." Today, Crazy Rhythms is a landmark of jangly, guitar-driven avant-pop, and its shimmering sound can still be heard in bands like R.E.M. But it almost wasn't released at all.

The Feelies formed in 1976 in their small hometown of Haledon, New Jersey, as a lark. Tripping on acid one day, Million passed guitarist Glenn Mercer's garage and was impressed to hear the band playing the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog." The like-minded guitarists formed a band that eventually included bassist Keith Clayton and drummer Anton Fier.

"The sound we were after was a reaction against the punk scene," says Mercer. "Being a little older, we felt it had all been done before. We wanted the guitars to be cleaner, and we started experimenting with a lot of percussion."

Afer recording a four-song demo, the Feelies signed with England's Stiff Records, the only label that would let the fledgling band produce itself. They entered New York's cavernous Vanguard studios late in the summer of 1979 only to find that they couldn't get a guitar sound they liked. "It was very old, things were breaking down," says Mercer. "We tried closets, bathrooms, hallways." Finally, engineer Mark Abel suggested bypassing the amp and plugging the guitars directly into the mixer. "It's a basic rule of recording to never, ever record direct," says Mercer. "It's a very dry, clean sound, and most people think it lacks dynamics. But we found it was closer to your ear, more up front."

The music is jittery, thumping and volatile, complementing titles like "The Boy With Perpetual Nervousness" and "Loveless Love." There are long silences, repeated notes, wavering tones, pickups flipped on and off. Any gaps are filled with strange, found percussion instruments, including cans, shoe boxes and coat racks.

Their record label, however, "hated it," according to Mercer. "They brought us into a meeting, put Lene Lovich's latest song on the turntable and said, 'You guys gotta come up with something like this.'" The album received little promotion, Fier was soon wooed away by the Lounge Lizards, and the band broke up for several years. Today, Crazy Rhythms is available only as a German import. "People have talked about remixing and re-releasing it," says Mercer, "but you don't want to mess around with it. It's got a life of its own."

48

XTC, ‘Skylarking’

"This is going to sound pompous and arty," says XTC's Andy Partridge, "but the whole album is a cycle of something: a day or a year, with the seasons, or a life. It's a cycle of starting, aging, dying and starting again." He is referring to Skylarking, the British trio's superb eighth album.

Recorded largely at Todd Rundgren's studio in Woodstock, New York, Skylarking's fourteen songs abound in elemental imagery and music that is pastoral, understated and carefully arranged. The album is a celebration of nature and particularly of summertime.

"The atmosphere of the album is one of a playfully sexual hot summer," says Partridge. "On a hot day, a lot of life is going to be made somewhere, and it's probably gonna be outdoors on grass. It's just about summer and being out in the open and discovering sex in a stumbly, teenage way."

The concept of the album as a song cycle is underscored by musical interludes and incidental sounds between tracks. The songs are related by key, tempo and subject matter. Oddly enough, the thematic framework was not the band's idea but producer Rundgren's. Guitarist Partridge and bass player Colin Moulding, XTC's principal writers, had worked up thirty-five songs, which they sent Rundgren in advance of their arrival in America. He selected fourteen of them, decided on a lineup and instructed the band to be ready to cut them in that order.

"He tended to go for the gentler songs, for songs of a certain atmosphere," says Partridge. "We'd sit down and talk about where the emotion was headed: the emotion, the atmosphere, the heat, the geographic place, the time of day — this journey you're supposed to go through on the whole record."

Partridge's iconoclastic "Dear God" was left off the album at his insistence. Relegated to the B side of a twelve-inch single, "Dear God" generated such an overwhelming response when played on radio that it became XTC's unlikely first hit in America — and was added to later pressings of Skylarking. "I thought I'd failed to précis the largest subject in man's mind, which is man's belief of what the truth is," Partridge says. "How the hell do you condense that into four minutes?"

Skylarking, as it turned out, was the album that broke XTC to a larger audience in America — and it couldn't have come at a more opportune time. "We were at our lowest ebb, moralewise, because we weren't selling any records and it wasn't the LP that Virgin and Geffen wanted made," Partridge says. "They wanted a slick, hard, American rock album: The quote was 'Can you make it somewhere between ZZ Top and the Police?'"

Though subdued and sublime, Skylarking was not an easy album to make. The band members argued with Rundgren and one another; Moulding actually quit at one point, and Partridge repeatedly threatened to fly back to England. Though he didn't like the album initially, Partridge's opinion of Skylarking — and of Rundgren — has softened. "I now see with the benefit of hindsight that it's a fine album and he did some sterling work," says Partridge.

47

Tina Turner, ‘Private Dancer’

Perhaps the most spectacular comeback album of the Eighties, Private Dancer reestablished Tina Turner as one of rock's premier artists. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the album is that it was made at all.

Turner was playing Las Vegas and selling few records when, in 1982, Martyn Ware and Greg Walsh of the English synth-pop group Heaven 17 recruited her for an album of high-tech covers of their favorite songs sung by their favorite singers. Turner's version of "Ball of Confusion" became a British hit and won her a recording contract. Back with Ware and Walsh, her reworking of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" proved a hit, and Capitol wanted an album fast.

Terry Britten, an Australian songwriter, co-wrote the feisty "Show Some Respect," produced a stark electro-version of Ann Peebles's "I Can't Stand the Rain" and co-wrote the reggae-tinged "What's Love Got to Do With It."

Rupert Hine, known for his work with the Fixx, produced the Holly Knight-penned "Better Be Good to Me." Turner related her life story and her belief in reincarnation to Hine's girlfriend and song-writing partner, Jeanette Obstoj, who then wrote the album's opening track, "I Might Have Been Queen." Lyrics like "I look up to my past/A spirit running free/I look down and I'm there in history/I'm a soul survivor" must have rung true, for as Turner's manager, Roger Davies, says, "she just loved it — I think she almost cried when she read the lyrics."

Mark Knopfler donated "Private Dancer," and British singer Paul Brady wrote the album's hardest rocker, "Steel Claw." Jeff Beck, backed by Dire Straits (minus Knopfler, who had other commitments), contributed electrifying leads to both tracks.

Recording with Britten in London by day and at Hine's country studio by night, Turner cut nine tracks in three weeks. When it was all done, "What's Love Got to Do With It" hit Number One, and "Better Be Good to Me" and "Private Dancer" went Top Ten. Private Dancer went platinum several times over, and Tina Turner's rightful place in pop's pantheon was reaffirmed.

Rolling Stone's Original 1984 Review

Tina Turner Photos: A Life in Photographs Onstage and Behind the Scenes

46

Peter Gabriel, ‘Peter Gabriel’

The album's cover depicts the face of Peter Gabriel disintegrating ghoulishly, but it is the social and psychological issues explored on Gabriel's third solo album that make it such a chilling work. The album's opening track, "Intruder," is about a thief and potential rapist; "Family Snapshot" is about an assassin; "I Don't Remember" is about an amnesiac; and "No Self Control," Gabriel's favorite track on the album, is a desperate tale of anxiety, alienation and latent violence. Small wonder that Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun asked if Gabriel had spent any time in a mental hospital after hearing "Lead a Normal Life," an eerie sketch of life in an asylum.

Less understandable, however, was Atlantic's decision not to release Gabriel's third album. (Each of his first four solo albums is titled Peter Gabriel.) "I think they were looking for, perhaps, 'Solsbury Hill' or 'Modern Love' — something that they thought had more pop appeal," Gabriel says. "I still have a lot of respect for Atlantic, based on their history. But at the time it was a major blow to my self-confidence. I definitely felt it was my best work, so I was waiting for an enthusiastic reaction, not to be dropped from the label."

Mercury eventually released the album in the summer of 1980; it was well received and enjoyed prominence on alternative radio, largely on the strength of "Games Without Frontiers," Gabriel's jaunty examination of the similarities between childhood play and adult warfare.

Peter Gabriel's jagged rhythms and off-kilter melodies provide a gripping sonic complement to the album's edgy themes. "There were some definite ambitions with arrangements, going for sounds that hadn't really been used before," Gabriel says. "I think for me as a writer, it's the album on which I discovered a style."

He also discovered "good working partners," among them guitarist Robert Fripp, drummers Jerry Marotta and Phil Collins (Gabriel's old band mate from Genesis), singers Paul Weller of the Jam and Kate Bush, producer Steve Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham. "There was a lot of open minds, a lot of support for exploration," Gabriel says.

Peter Gabriel is perhaps best known today for its closing number, "Biko" — a tribute to freedom fighter Steven Biko, who was murdered in prison by the South African authorities. "I was quite uncertain about getting engaged in a political song," Gabriel admits, "because I'd never directly taken on an issue in that way. I just tried some ideas, and I felt the spine tingling. That to me is the musician's rubber stamp — the spine tingle." After all the troubling themes the album confronts, "Biko" ends Peter Gabriel on a stirring note by exalting the indomitable human desire for freedom. That process is part of what Gabriel says is "a familiar theme for me: looking into the darkness and seeing if there's a possibility for triumph."

Rolling Stone's 2001 Review

45

Sonic Youth, ‘Daydream Nation’

"How do you plan an accident? That's what we're all about," says Sonic Youth's guitarist Thurston Moore.

The trailblazing quartet has made its mark by exploring the rough edges that other bands smooth over, bolstering its experiments in sound with the raw power of a top-flight rock & roll band. Daydream Nation refined everything that made Sonic Youth the most powerful and innovative American guitar band of the Eighties and channeled it into a seventy-one-minute, double-album tour de force. The band's guitarists, Moore and Lee Ranaldo, harnessed an idiosyncratic vocabulary of overtones, harmonics, drones and feedback to create vast sounds and textures unlike anything else in rock.

Daydream Nation is very much of the place where it was created, articulating the chaos and violent energy of the band's New York City. "The structures of Daydream Nation were really worked on a lot," says bassist-vocalist Kim Gordon, and sure enough, beneath the music's teeming surface is a Byzantine barrage of spine-tingling riffs and dynamic peaks and valleys fueled by drummer Steve Shelley.

The band's lyrics tend toward a stream-of-collective-unconscious grab bag of underground culture, including erotica, grade-Z horror flicks and cyberpunk science fiction. "Hit the power/Psycho helmet's on/You've got to splice your halo/Take it to the moon," Moore sings in "Silver Rocket," as the song's raw punk thrust explodes in a shower of pure, exultant noise.

Although the largely self-produced Daydream Nation was recorded for a paltry $30,000, that was twice as much money as the band had spent on any of its five other albums. According to Gordon, the extra production bucks "gave power to the songs. It's like buying credibility."

"Providence," one of the album's most interesting tracks, is a quiet interlude for phone machine, piano and one abused amplifier. "It was a fan-cooled amplifier," Moore says, "and I had put something on the fan, so the tubes were suffocating and created this panicky rumble coming out of the speakers. So we recorded that and made it into a song." A friend of the band's, Mike Watt of the group Firehose, contributed a phone message from Providence, Rhode Island, scolding Moore for losing some guitar cables and insinuating that his short-term memory was shot. "It's about smoking pot," Moore explains.

Moore says the band originally wanted to call the album Bookbag and package it in a plaid schoolbook tote, an idea scrapped only because of its expense. Instead, the band opted for a simple painting of a candle by German artist Gerhard Richter. "We wanted to use something that was outwardly conservative looking, just because people wouldn't expect that," Gordon says. "The most radical things outwardly look very conservative."

Both Ranaldo and Moore are veterans of downtown noise maestro Glenn Branca's guitar orchestras. The massed guitars and colossal dissonances of those groups still figure in Sonic Youth's sound, although Moore doesn't quite see it that way: "I mean, he's into the harmonic series, we're into the TV series." Moore would rather compare his band to the early-Seventies New York grunge rockers in the Godz, whom rock critic Lester Bangs once lovingly described as "the most inept band I've ever heard." "We come straight out of them," Moore says. "If you can find The Third Testament, by the Godz, that's a great record."

Rolling Stone's Original 1989 Review

Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Daydream Nation' by Sonic Youth

44

Bob Dylan, ‘Oh Mercy’

Bob Dylan closed out the Eighties with Oh Mercy, arguably the strongest album from the singer-songwriter in a decade that saw both his creative ups (Infidels) and downs (Down in the Groove). Recorded in New Orleans, Oh Mercy can be considered a musical trivet consisting of Dylan, producer Daniel Lanois and a solid New Orleans rhythm section.

Lanois, who'd previously worked with U2 and Peter Gabriel, interrupted the recording of his own album, Acadie, to work with Dylan. "It's an enlightening experience, watching a great poet embark on a new voyage," says Lanois.

The majority of the album was cut live, with members of the Neville Brothers providing no-nonsense backing for Dylan's raspy, half-spoken vocals. His more cryptic compositions, however, found him accompanied only by Lanois and engineer Malcolm Burn. Although the sessions were shrouded in secrecy, one musician who was there recalls that Dylan was "extremely focused on his writing. He had the lyrics to his songs on a music stand in front of him, and he'd be writing and changing lyrics while people were running around the studio. He does a tune a number of different ways until he hits a groove that works. If things aren't working after a few takes, he goes on to another song."

"Political World" sets the album's lyric theme, boiling with savage musical intensity. Oh Mercy's only other rocker, "Everything Is Broken," is reminiscent of a Slim Harpo blues shuffle, complete with a squeaky harmonica solo. Still capable of making a listener feel squeamish, Dylan chides his audience on "What Was It You Wanted" and "Shooting Star." On the other hand, "What Good Am I" and "Most of the Time" emerge as his most personal compositions in many years.

While it would be unfair to compare Oh Mercy to Dylan's landmark Sixties recordings, it sits well alongside his impressive body of work. It is also an encouraging sign that Dylan's creativity will continue to flourish in the coming decade.

Rolling Stone's Original 1989 Review

Photos: The Artwork of Bob Dylan

43

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Nebraska’

First, he sat on a rocking chair in his New Jersey bedroom, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing into a tape recorder. Then he stuck the cassette (sans case) in his back pocket and carried it around for a couple of weeks. Next, he tried to teach the songs to the E Street Band. Finally, several soul-searching months later, Bruce Springsteen decided that his next album was going to be the cassette tape he'd kept in his pocket.

That tape would become Nebraska, an album full of dark, desperate tales from a rock & roll star who'd decided that some stories are best told simply, by a man and his guitar. Commercially, it was a daring move. In 1982, Springsteen was at the point where a strong rock album would have cemented the breakthrough he'd made with The River, released in 1980, which yielded his first Top Ten hit, "Hungry Heart." But he was growing increasingly disturbed by the currents in Ronald Reagan's America and was unable to retain his youthful belief that rock & roll could make everything right. "There was a particular moment when I said, 'Oh, my ideas that have sustained me have sort of failed,'" he said later. "I had a particular time when I felt pretty empty and very isolated, and I suppose that's where some of that record came from."

He listened to Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and more obscure folk and country singers. He saw movies like John Huston's Wise Blood and Terence Malick's Badlands, which sparked his interest in the 1958 murder spree of Charlie Starkweather and Caril Fugate. Back home in New Jersey, he wrote more than a dozen shattering, plain-spoken songs about murder, despair and isolation. On January 3rd, 1982, he sang them, one after another, into a four-track tape recorder.

He planned to teach them to the E Street Band, but somehow the songs that were so haunting in their rough, unaccompanied versions didn't sound right with fuller arrangements. "It became obvious fairly soon that what Bruce wanted on the record was what he already had on the demo," says drummer Max Weinberg. "The band, though we played the hell out of them, tended to obscure the starkness and the vibe he was going for."

Eventually, Springsteen returned to the acoustic demos, deciding to release them as is. Nebraska was a grim record for a grim time. It was both a courageous album and an influential one, presaging the frank, narrative songwriting and spare presentation of such late-Eighties folk stylists as Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega. Its ghostly aura even pervaded the work of U2 and John Cougar Mellencamp. But it was, above all, a profoundly personal statement from an artist who was unsettled by all he saw around him — and decided he couldn't look away.

Rolling Stone's Original 1982 Review

42

The Robert Cray Band, ‘Strong Persuader’

"I think that my band was part of a blues-roots movement that included people like the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray Vaughan, who were coming along at that particular time," says bandleader Robert Cray. While Cray's sense of what was happening on the American rock scene in late 1986 is accurate, it modestly downplays the accomplishments of the singer-guitarist and his backing trio.

In February of that year, Strong Persuader — Cray's fourth album — hit Number Thirteen on the Billboard pop-albums chart, making it the highest-charting blues album since Bobby "Blue" Bland's Call on Me/That's the Way Love Is, which reached Number Eleven some twenty-three years earlier. Strong Persuader, in effect, introduced a new generation of mainstream rock fans to the language and form of the blues.

An army brat who grew up on bases in West Germany and the Pacific Northwest, Cray was introduced to popular black music at home, but he discovered blues artists on his own as a teenager. "I still have a lot of the same influences today," Cray says. "People like Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, O.V. Wright and Sam Cooke."

In his lyric themes, Cray often veers away from the hard-luck road trod by most bluesmen. But his trebly, razor-sharp guitar playing is straight out of the electric blues tradition, and it provides Strong Persuader with a distinctive edge.

Signed to the small High Tone label when work on Strong Persuader began, Cray was hoping to hook up with a larger company. "The production on the first records was too low-budget," he says, "and we were looking for a major label because we want to make a better record every time."

Cray and his band eventually cut a deal with PolyGram, but they continued to work with producers Bruce Bromberg and Dennis Walker, who had produced their High Tone albums. As a result, Strong Persuader was released with a combined High Tone/Mercury imprint. In addition to coproducing the album, Walker contributed "Right Next Door (Because of Me)," a tale of infidelity played out in a motel room. The song, which became the album's centerpiece, also includes the lyrics from which Strong Persuader derived its title.

The song that really drove Strong Persuader up the charts, however, was "Smoking Gun," a smoldering tale of jealousy and murder. Although released two months after the album hit the streets — late for a first single — it became a Top Forty hit, and the video became a staple on MTV.

Strong Persuader ultimately went gold, a feat virtually unheard-of for a blues album. Yet Cray maintains that the album was less a departure from his blues path than a natural evolution. "The recording sessions have been pretty much the same for each of our albums," he says. "I just thought the quality of the music we were making was getting better. It was about the whole band being together."

41

R.E.M., ‘Document’

R.E.M.'s thorniest and most overtly political album, ironically, was the one that brought the band a mass audience, yielding its first bona fide hit single in "The One I Love." After four albums of unique, visionary rock & roll (not counting Dead Letter Office, a collection of B sides), the unconventional Georgians left the alternative-music substrata and entered the mainstream, at least saleswise, with Document as their passport. As Peter Buck put it at the time, "We're the acceptable edge of the unacceptable stuff."

Recorded in Nashville with producer Scott Litt, R.E.M.'s Document is an angry, largely topical look at a world wracked by political and environmental catastrophe. Singing in clear, enunciated syllables, Michael Stipe trains his disapproving lyrics upon despoilers of nature ("Disturbance at the Heron House"), peddlers of right-wing dogma ("Exhuming McCarthy"), warmongers in Latin America ("Welcome to the Occupation") and other abusers of the planet and the public trust. The first side closes with "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)," a nervy pop-music news bulletin about an apocalypse in progress. A rapid-fire spew of pop-culture images leads to the main title and its cryptic tag: "… And I feel fine."

What was going on? "Michael broached the idea that the stuff he was writing was a little more direct politically," says guitarist Peter Buck, "and the stuff we had been writing was a lot more chaotic, too. It kind of came together."

R.E.M.'s politicization on Document, Buck believes, is due to the fact that "your thoughts are obviously different at thirty years old than they are at twenty-three." Even the seeming love song "The One I Love" is far from a fairy-tale view of romance, describing "the one I love" as "a simple prop to occupy my time." "It's definitely not a love song," says Buck. "It's more of a nasty comment about oneself."

Despite its success, "The One I Love" is not one of the band members' favorites. "It's funny that the songs on the radio from us are probably the ones we feel from the heart the least," says Buck. So how did he feel when R.E.M. was proclaimed America's best rock & roll band on the cover of Rolling Stone as Document was ascending the charts? "Embarrassed, like any sensible person would be," he says with a chuckle.

Rolling Stone's Original 1987 Review

R.E.M. Roar Back With 'Collapse Into Now'

40

U2, ‘War’

"Punk had died," says the Edge. "we couldn't believe it had been swept to the side as if it had never happened, and War was designed as a knuckle buster in the face of the new pop."

Indeed, at the time of the album's release in 1983, the anger and anarchy of the late-Seventies punk movement had been replaced by the new romanticism best typified by Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. Into such tepid waters, U2 dropped its bomb: War is a powerful fusion of politics and militant rock & roll, an album that anticipated the political awareness that would come back into vogue as the decade progressed.

With two of U2's best sing-along anthems, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day," War became something of a Who's Next for the Eighties. The album's aggressive sound is highlighted by what bassist Adam Clayton calls "all those helicopter guitars."

Following U2's first two albums, the delicate and ethereal Boy and the moodier and disjointed October, War arrived with the force of a jackhammer ripping into concrete. Rough, hard and metallic, it remains U2's most overt rock album.

"We loved the Clash's attitude early on," the Edge says. "And Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Pistols. Guitar bands that didn't use blues clichés. I was listening to Tom Verlaine to figure out how to make tough music."

The title itself was arresting, as were its politically inspired songs. "We wanted a record people couldn't just write off," says Clayton. "It was an unsettled time, a year of conflict. Poland was on the news at the time. You looked around and there were conflicts everywhere. We saw a lot of unrest on TV and in the media. We focused on that."

Still, U2 wanted to leave listeners with a feeling of hope. "We wanted love and anger," says the Edge. "We wanted a protest record, but a positive protest record."

War was recorded in about six weeks at Windmill Lane Studios, in Dublin, with most of the songs written in the studio. Vocalist Bono improvised lyrics to completed tracks, then refined them. "Bono would sing, and whatever came out would be the starting point," says producer Steve Lillywhite.

Completing the songs was difficult. "It's always hard to finish them," says Clayton. "It takes Bono a long time to commit to a lyric. 'New Year's Day' was a tough one. We had arguments over the vocals. At one stage it wasn't even on the record."

The album's final track, "40," which takes its title and lyrics from the Fortieth Psalm, was literally finished at the last moment, even as the next band scheduled to use the studio cooled its heels. "We were trying to get lyrics down and mix it with people pounding on the door," says Clayton.

Rolling Stone's Original 1983 Review

Photos: U2, The Rolling Stone Covers

39

ZZ Top, ‘Eliminator’

ZZ Top's Eliminator was the hands-down party album of the decade, pleasing hard-core boogie freaks and New Wave ironists alike with its bluesy vamping, tawdry lyrics and chic, trashy videos. You practically had to be in a coma not to have found some opportunity to dance to "Legs," "Sharp Dressed Man" and "Gimme All Your Lovin'" in 1983. ZZ Top had enjoyed million-selling albums in the Seventies, but Eliminator outsold all the band's previous releases. Most amazing of all, the album suddenly made the Texas trio with two of the longest beards in Christendom the hippest and hottest thing in rock & roll.

"We still sometimes wonder what exactly did transpire to make those sessions dramatically different," says guitarist Billy Gibbons. "I suppose it might have been a return to playing together as a band in the studio as we did onstage."

Many of the songs were written backstage during the Deguello tour. "Those dressing-room sessions that so many traveling bands talk about really are invaluable to creating a body of studio work," says Gibbons. The band was determined to keep that dressing-room ambience alive when it went in to record. Eliminator was cut at Ardent Recording, in Memphis, a city whose musical heritage of Stax-Volt soul and Beale Street blues rubbed off on ZZ Top. "There was quite a stirring of sentiment around 1983 in Memphis," Gibbons recalls. "The city is steeped in a very time-honored and strong tradition. It's in the air. There was a soulful element in that period of time that affected the way we were playing."

A trip to England prior to the sessions yielded its own influences, with the band taking in synth pop and the intense fashion consciousness of its "new romantic" practitioners. The modern technology inspired the band members to have a go at synths themselves, while the cool threads they had seen on the streets of London inspired them to write "Sharp Dressed Man."

The synthesizers the band began noodling around on at Ardent happened to be primitive analogue models, with lots of wires and dials and no presets. "When we finally did return from England to get our work done, I think curiosity was a real magnet to turning on those things," says Gibbons. "What you got was a bunch of cowpokes on blues twisting knobs from outer space." But it worked: The synthesizers — layered organically amid guitars, bass and drums — contributed to Eliminator's dense, bluesy feel. "Synthesizer meets soul was a good combo," Gibbons says.

Often lyrics were inspired by real-life situations. "Legs," for instance, came about one rainy day on the way to the studio. "There was a young lady dodging the raindrops, and being obliging Southerners, we spun the car around," says Gibbons. "No sooner had we turned around to pick her up — boom! — she'd vanished. And we said, 'That girl's got legs, and she knows how to use them.'"

Another song, "TV Dinners," was inspired by seeing those very words stenciled on the back of a woman's jumpsuit on the dance floor of a funky nightclub on the east side of Memphis. "I was stunned," says Gibbons, deadpan. "It was just that moment — there it is, a gift. I mean why, other than to inspire us, would she have walked past sporting TV Dinners on her jumpsuit?"

As Eliminator gathered steam, Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill's flowing, belt-length beards became a visual symbol of ZZ Top. At one point, the Gillette company actually offered to pay them to shave off their beards on national television. "Our reply was 'Can't do it, simply because underneath 'em is too ugly,'" says Gibbons, guffawing.

Photos: Taylor Swift, ZZ Top, Tim McGraw and More Rock for Flood Relief

38

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, ‘Imperial Bedroom’

When Columbia records released Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom — the angry young Brit's seventh album in six years — the company took out ads that read, Masterpiece? Without question, Imperial Bedroom is one of Costello's major artistic statements — and arguably the high point in the career of a prolific musician who has consistently delivered impressive work.

Perhaps reacting to the creative limitations of his preceding album, Almost Blue — a disappointing collection of country covers recorded in Nashville with the veteran producer Billy Sherill — Costello returned to form on Imperial Bedroom. It is a far-ranging gem that finds him moving all over the musical map, from the ominous, jazzy "Shabby Doll" to the Sgt. Pepper-esque pop of "… And in Every Home." Reviewing the album in Rolling Stone, Parke Puterbaugh wrote, "Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom is really a mansion, each of whose rooms is decorated with painstaking care and detail by the artist."

When it comes to Imperial Bedroom, Costello is its harshest — and maybe its only — critic. "In retrospect, I feel some of the songs are just not well written enough," he said in an interview with Rolling Stone earlier this year. "Some of them were attempts to create a little mystery room the listener could go into. And in some cases, the subject matter is maybe too large for the song's own good. 'The Loved Ones' is about the trap of playing to posterity, and it's just too vague a subject for a song. It's too theoretical."

Asked about the Columbia ad, Costello grimaced and said, "There were some ludicrous things claimed on behalf of that record." Some reviewers compared Costello to John Lennon and Paul McCartney (Costello would later collaborate with McCartney), as well as Tin Pan Alley immortals like Cole Porter and George Gershwin.

"It could be momentarily flattering," Costello said of the praise. "But then you realize that, strange as it may seem, some people don't like Cole Porter, you know? It made me very perverse on that tour. I'd be playing amphitheaters in the Midwest, and I'd do eight ballads in a row, only two of which would be mine. In the end, all those comparisons just made things more difficult."

According to Geoff Emerick — the veteran recording engineer for the Beatles and the producer of Imperial Bedroom — his approach to recording the artfully crafted album was actually quite simple. "We were trying to capture Elvis's spontaneity, because he's a first-take kind of guy," says Emerick. "We wanted to get back to basics." Work at AIR Studios in London proceeded quickly. "Elvis is very fast," Emerick says. "When we did the first session, there was an onslaught of something like eighteen songs, which we cut in fast takes. It took me quite by surprise. From then on, it was a matter of thinking which ones should we record."

The savage guitar and wordless screaming that link three of the songs on the album's first side — "The Long Honeymoon," "Man Out of Time," "Almost Blue" — was something of an afterthought. "That may have been part of a song we didn't use," says Emerick. "We just faded it in and out." Considerable thought, however, went into keyboardist Steve Nieve's inventive orchestrations for many of the album tracks. "Steve didn't want the standard orchestration — first and second violins, cellos and so on — on 'Town Cryer' and some of the other songs. So we used, I think, eighteen violas, which was really unique."

Despite the rave reviews, Imperial Bedroom yielded no hit singles, and the album peaked at Number Thirty in the United States. Still, it is a favorite of many Costello fans, as well as producer Emerick's. "Elvis is a major songwriter," he says. "He just oozes talent. And we captured Elvis then and there. It was easy — I pulled up the fader, and away we went."

Rolling Stone's Original 1982 Review

Video: Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes Play the New York Public Library

37

Marvin Gaye, ‘Midnight Love’

It was conceived as an album about spiritual and sexual salvation titled Sexual Healing, after the song that eventually became one of the biggest hits of Marvin Gaye's three-decade-long career. But the singer's new record company, Columbia, wasn't thrilled with the title, and ultimately neither was Gaye, who worried that such a provocative title would spoil what he hoped would be his comeback.

Gaye dropped the idea but kept the song "Sexual Healing," which he correctly believed from the start would be a hit (it reached Number Three on the Billboard pop charts). "They'll be jamming all over the world to this," he told his biographer David Ritz, who collaborated with him on the lyrics of the song.

While Midnight Love is not Gaye's masterpiece — that honor goes to the landmark album What's Going On — it is an inspired, mature work from one of the greatest soul singers, and it is certainly one of the best soul albums of the Eighties. Loaded with infectious dance-floor grooves, sophisticated guitar work, third-world rhythms and seductive vocals, Midnight Love did indeed prove to be Gaye's comeback. Sadly, it was also the last album he made before he was shot to death by his father in April of 1984.

"Marvin had been living in Europe, and he was influenced by both reggae and the synthesizer work of groups like Kraftwerk," recalls Larkin Arnold, a former CBS Records vice-president who was the executive producer of Midnight Love. "He took the rhythm of reggae, the new technology and American soul and came up with something fresh and unique."

Although Midnight Love has an urbane, high-gloss feel, the album was actually conceived and created while Gaye was living in Ostend, a quiet seaside town in Belgium, where he had retreated to escape the excesses of Hollywood and London. At first he worked with his brother-in-law the multi-instrumentalist Gordon Banks, at Studio Katy, in Ohaine, a small town not far from Brussels. Later the veteran Motown producer Harvey Fuqua (who had discovered Gaye and added him to the historic doo-wop group the Moonglows in 1958] was brought in to keep things on track.

Gaye worked sporadically on the album over a nine-month period. "He was stubborn," says Arnold. "He enjoyed the role of the tortured and spurned artist. He would pout and go off. Two or three times he stopped working on the album. It was nerve-racking." Columbia's financial cost for getting Gaye into the studio and keeping him there was high — more than $1.5 million to buy his contract from Motown, a $600,000 advance for the singer and more than $1.5 million in recording costs, according to Curtis Shaw, Gaye's attorney at the time. But Arnold, who masterminded the deal, puts the cost of recording Midnight Love closer to $2 million.

Whatever the cost, the album was a hit, selling 2.7 million copies worldwide, more than 2 million of them in the United States. Gaye saw his album — which followed two unsuccessful records for Motown — as a commercial endeavor designed to win back a mass audience. In a typically frank interview, he even dismissed a couple of the album's songs as "contrived."

Although he told the writer Nelson George in 1983 that his "mission" was to "tell the world and the people about the upcoming holocaust and to find all of those of higher consciousness who can be saved," Gaye felt the need to draw everybody's attention with a hit before returning to message music. "For legitimacy, I need worldwide exposure," he said. "This is a chance for the world to recognize Marvin Gaye, so that ultimately I can get my message across."

Rolling Stone's Original 1983 Review

Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Marvin Gaye

36

Anita Baker, ‘Rapture’

Although Anita Baker's Rapture exudes an aura of dimmed lights and romantic introspection, the album was, in fact, a product of hard times and difficult decisions. Baker had previously cut a funk record with a band called Chapter 8 and a solo album called The Songstress, which was released on the Beverly Glen label in 1983. When she moved to Elektra, a legal battle ensued that threatened to block the release of Rapture.

"You don't see any of that turmoil in the music," says Baker. "It's as if it were an outlet for more beautiful things." Baker moved to Elektra because she was looking for creative freedom. "I knew what I wanted to sing, and I knew what kind of production I wanted, which was a minimalist approach," Baker says. "The dilemma was choosing a producer."

Baker turned to Michael J. Powell, the former keyboardist in Chapter 8, who produced seven of the eight tracks on Rapture. Baker herself is credited as executive producer. Elektra, meanwhile, let Baker make the record her way. "They just gave me my budget and left me the hell alone," she says, appreciatively.

Rapture, which was released in 1986, is an emotionally rich, subtly restrained suite of songs that merge elements of jazz and soul, with an emphasis on ballads like "Sweet Love," "You Bring Me Joy" and "Been So Long." It is bold in its very conservatism, and it evokes favorable comparisons to the work of some of Baker's idols, such as Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson. Baker says she was not concerned about how different Rapture seemed from much of the music out at the time. "It didn't cause me any apprehension," she says with a laugh, "because I didn't think anybody was gonna hear it!"

Rapture was recorded in a couple of months, with a good deal of time spent selecting material and working out arrangements. Baker still finds the album's depth of feeling satisfying. "I was very pleased," she says. "I didn't know I had that in me. I wanted a smooth product with energy and heart, but I surprised myself. There's passion there. I knew I could pop a note, but the nuances, I think, are what's important on that album."

Interestingly, despite its torch songs and paeans to love, Rapture ends with the edgy "Watch Your Step" — one of three songs Baker wrote or co-wrote. It's a relatively uptempo R&B number that warns an inconstant lover, "You better watch your step/You'll fall and hurt yourself one day." Baker says: "The last thing that people hear from you should be something to stir your emotions, to shake you up. I don't like to leave people relaxed. I like to start off relaxing them and then build up to some sort of crescendo."

Despite her regard for the album, Baker did not anticipate the multiplatinum sales Rapture earned. "Nobody did," she says, laughing. "Nobody. It was like a music-industry fairy tale. I've heard people speak of things like that happening; I've seen it happen to other people. I'll tell you, though, it took a hell of a lot of work."

35

Metallica, ‘Kill ‘Em All’

With their 1983 debut, Kill 'Em All, Metallica rose up from the heavy-metal underground to establish a vital new subgenre, known as speed metal or thrash metal. As pioneered by Metallica, it was a hybrid of punk and metal, distinguished by lightning speed, manic rhythm changes and a thoughtful if outraged approach to lyrics about suicide, religion, war and nuclear holocaust.

At a time when most young metal bands still slavishly imitated aging or absent gods like Ozzy Osbourne and Led Zeppelin, such songs as "Whiplash," "Hit the Lights" and "Seek and Destroy" were refreshing and revelatory. The no-sellout attitude of the band — singer-guitarist James Hetfield, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, bassist Cliff Burton and drummer Lars Ulrich — inspired metal fans seeking new thrills and heroes.

Kill 'Em All, originally released on Megaforce and later reissued on Elektra, was the product of what the band calls "riff tapes." Riffs that emerged during practice or jam sessions were committed to tape. Then Ulrich and Hetfield constructed songs from the best riffs. "You start at the top and figure what vibe the song has," Ulrich told Rolling Stone last year. "The general tempo, where you want to take it all. Get an opening. And at one point soon after the opening, you enter into the Mighty Main Riff."

Hetfield's lyrics, by comparison, were the result of "drinking and thinking, seeing what's going on around me." He tackled weighty subjects like spiritual isolation ("No Remorse") and bloody apocalypse ("The Four Horsemen"). The title of the album certainly captures the adversarial tone of the record, although not as graphically as the name the band originally proposed: Metal up Your Ass.

At the time, Metallica had temporarily relocated from California to New York City, where, according to Hammett, they lived on bologna sandwiches and Schlitz Malt Liquor while rehearsing and recording. "When we started out, it seemed like all the odds were against us," says Hammett. "The sound we had was so different, other people didn't know what to do with us." When Megaforce told the band that distributors wouldn't go for an album called Metal up Your Ass, Hammett says, "we were so pissed off that one day Cliff just went, 'Aw, why don't we just kill 'em all?' And we went, 'Yeah, that's it!'"

Metallica Photos: Three Decades of Metal Mayhem

Video: On The Road to the Rock Hall: Metallica

34

The Rolling Stones, ‘Tattoo You’

"Tattoo You wasn't really an eighties album," says Mick Jagger, and in a sense he's right. The decision to launch a Rolling Stones tour in 1981 left the band with little time to write new songs and prompted what Keith Richards calls "a frantic search through the can" to come up with material for an album — a search that produced some ironic results.

"The album came out and everybody said, 'It's the freshest-sounding Stones album in years,'" says Richards, laughing. "We all had a good chuckle."

"Oh, that made me really laugh," Jagger says in agreement. "But now all can be revealed. I was actually rather scared at times. I thought, 'They're bound to notice. The critics can't not notice that this is from here and that's from there.'"

As it turns out, the band reached back nearly a decade for material. The ballads "Waiting on a Friend" and "Tops" were begun in Jamaica in 1972 during work on Goats Head Soup. "Worried About You" and "Slave" dated back to some 1975 rehearsals in Holland for Black and Blue. Early versions of "Start Me Up" were worked up during the Some Girls sessions in 1978. Finally, "Neighbors," "Heaven," "No Use in Crying," "Little T&A," "Hang Fire" and "Black Limousine" were initially recorded during the 1979 sessions for Emotional Rescue.

Of course, the varied origins of the songs on Tattoo You do not detract from the album's power and thematic richness. As Richards points out, having a stockpile of worthwhile material is "one of the advantages of being around for a while." Both Jagger and Richards estimate that forty or more takes exist of "Start Me Up" — one of the Stones' best singles — all but one of which treat the song as a reggae number. "We'd obviously gotten pissed off with reggae," says Richards with a laugh. "We just hit it that one time — rock & roll — and there it was lying there, like a little gem."

In addition to unearthing a single that would burn Tattoo You into the memory of their fans, the Stones pushed the boundaries of their music by bringing in jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins to play on three tracks of the album. "Instead of having all these rock players, I thought we'd go a bit more off the wall and ask him to do some solos," says Jagger. "You can't beat using the best people." In addition, Jagger credits Bob Clearmountain, who mixed the record, for the cohesiveness of Tattoo You. "He did a great job of making it all a rather more homogeneous sound," Jagger says. "It sounds crisp, like it was recorded only yesterday."

For Jagger, Tattoo You provided a valuable lesson in the uses of the past. "It just shows what you can do," he says. "Just bring the tracks out, and start doing vocals and the odd guitar bit and saxophones, and then, hey, you've got an album. And it does actually hold up quite well."

Rolling Stone's Original 1981 Review

Photos: Mick Jagger

33

Hüsker Dü, ‘Zen Arcade’

With this landmark 1984 album, the Minneapolis trio Hüsker Dü picked hardcore punk up out of its monotonous rut and drop-kicked it into the future. Structurally, Zen Arcade is defiantly anti-punk — a double album with an operatic narrative and unorthodox segments of acoustic folk, backward tape effects and psychedelicized guitar à la the Beatles' White Album. Yet in challenging the rigid hardcore aesthetic of "loud 'n' fast rules," Hüsker Dü created a brave new music that was true to punk's raging energy while articulating the anger, confusion and fear of a generation that had outgrown "Blitzkrieg Bop." The result was Tommy by way of CBGB.

"We started out as a punk band," said Bob Mould, the band's singer and guitarist, in 1985. "We had a