100 Best Albums of the 1980s – Rolling Stone
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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.

53

John Hiatt, ‘Bring the Family’

John Hiatt made his best album, the brilliant and skillful Bring the Family, in record time — four days in February 1987, to be exact.

On it, Hiatt was accompanied by a small, simpatico ensemble of all-star musicians: guitarist Ry Cooder, bassist Nick Lowe and drummer Jim Keltner. The sessions were preceded by no rehearsals or preproduction. Lowe, in fact, went straight from the airport to the studio, arriving just in time to cut "Memphis in the Meantime," a song he had never heard before.

The spontaneity of it all, Hiatt believes, was largely responsible for the understated, forthright collection of songs that resulted. "I just don't think it would've come out the same if we'd spent more time on it," he says. "The beauty of the project was that none of us was given the time to think with the old left side of the brain."

Producer John Chelew imposed a four-day limit on the sessions; his motivation had less to do with economics or scheduling than a desire to capture the performances with an unstudied, first-take freshness. Hiatt himself likens it to a jazz session, where a band runs a tune down a few times, cuts it and moves on. "I imagined it might be something similar to that, in terms of the intensity and the fun," Hiatt says. "It was kind of scary, too, but very exciting."

There were seat-of-the-pants decisions made at every turn. When the band couldn't settle on an arrangement for the moving, confessional "Have a Little Faith in Me," Hiatt banged it out alone at the piano during a break, and it wound up on the album in that form. Lowe's breathless arrival the first day gave "Memphis in the Meantime" its odd, loopy rhythms. "It sounds like a car with four bald tires," says Hiatt, laughing. "It's like a four-man groove sputtering down the road, and I really like the record for that."

Hiatt is especially fond of Bring the Family's love songs. Having beat his alcohol and drug problems in 1984, Hiatt was a clearheaded, happily married and much less vituperative songwriter. "'Learning How to Love You,' for instance, is a song I had never been able to say quite so directly," Hiatt says. "I'm a coward, basically, when it comes to love, and that was the first time I really felt willing to come out and be a little vulnerable."

The emotional openness and spiritual resurgence carried through the whole album — which, amazingly enough, was made at a time when Hiatt didn't even have a record deal in America. "The normal sort of pressures of making a record, real or imagined, just weren't there," says Hiatt. "I'm not so sure a major label would have even let it happen, frankly, although they all seemed to want it after we made it. It went against the corporate approach to record-making, which is 'It can't be any good; you didn't spend any time or money on it!'"

To the contrary, Bring the Family is one of the most sublime and deeply felt albums of the Eighties. "I think the effect this group of musicians had on each other is that we all wanted to do our best," Hiatt says. "The way I look at the album today, I really see it as a true collaboration, of which I was just a cog in the wheel. I'm not trying to feign humility, but it was just such a group effort. It's a very inspirational bunch. I would like to go on record to say I sure hope it happens again."

52

Dire Straits, ‘Making Movies’

"I love doing third albums," says Jimmy Iovine, who coproduced Dire Straits' Making Movies with the band's lead singer, guitarist and songwriter, Mark Knopfler. "A group makes its first album, and then the record company rushes them into the studio to make their second album. After that, they go, 'Whoa, wait a second.' They get a little more confident. They step back and say, 'Okay, now we're gonna do it.'"

Iovine's description is an apt summary of the road Dire Straits traveled to get to Making Movies, which followed the band's distinctive 1978 debut, Dire Straits, and its disappointing second album, Communique. The description also captures the nature of Knopfler's ambitions for the record. "I think he wanted to take Dire Straits to that next step, especially in terms of the songs, and to have the album really make sense all together, which I think it does," Iovine says. "It's a really cohesive album. He stunned me, as far as his songwriting talents. The songs on that album are almost classical in nature."

Knopfler contacted Iovine because he liked Iovine's work on "Because the Night," the Patti Smith single that she'd co-written with Bruce Springsteen. Iovine, who had also worked on Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, was instrumental in calling E Street Band keyboardist Roy Bittan into the sessions for Making Movies. Without him, the album's cinematic power and evocative landscapes might have been impossible to achieve.

The melodicism and romantic intensity of Bittan's playing alternately underscore and serve as a foil for Knopfler's guitar — and help elevate such tracks as "Romeo and Juliet," "Tunnel of Love" and "Expresso Love" to poetic heights. Bittan's role became especially important because Knopfler's brother David, the band's rhythm guitarist, left Dire Straits during the first week of recording. Guitarist Sid McGiniss was brought in to assist Mark, bassist John Illsley and drummer Pick Withers, but Bittan's contribution was unique in that it was the first time the band had ever fully worked a keyboardist into its lineup.

"Mark was real excited, because it was the first time he expanded Dire Straits in a way that has been consistent since then," Bittan says. "It was a seminal album for them in that respect."

Bittan describes the sessions for Making Movies as "work sessions where we went in and really took time to capture the emotion and paint the picture…. They were not very straightforward songs. The subtleties of emotion that he was trying to capture was something real special — it reminded me of Bruce, you know?"

Making Movies was recorded in six weeks, but, Iovine says, "it basically happened on the first six days of the sessions. The right people were in the room together. It really was making a record in the pure sense of the term. The whole thing sounds like one song. But you know what that is? That's the writing, the guy who wrote it. He wrote the album like that; he wanted to make the album like that."

Rolling Stone's Original 1981 Review

51

Run-D.M.C., ‘Run-D.M.C.’

The pioneering rap-metal fusion of the song "Rock Box" and the powerful 1984 debut album it came from, Run-D.M.C., catapulted nineteen-year-old rappers Run (Joseph Simmons), D.M.C. (Darryl McDaniels) and their DJ, Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell), to the top of the rap heap and beyond. "Rock Box" proved that rap, like rock, is a malleable art form, capable of absorbing other influences, continually reinventing itself in the process.

Run and D.M.C. wielded rhymes like rockers wield guitars; the hugely influential "Rock Box" made the comparison explicit by souping up an inspired brag session with an innovation: blistering heavy-metal guitar from ace sessionman Eddie Martinez.

Although Run thought it was a bad idea at first, the marriage of metal and rap was inevitable, as rappers had already been using rhythm tracks from songs such as Billy Squier's "Big Beat" and Aerosmith's "Walk This Way." "Rock Box" kicked down musical barriers: It was the first video by a rap artist on MTV, thereby attracting a large white audience.

The rap-metal fusion remained influential. In the summer of 1986, Run-D.M.C.'s remake of "Walk This Way" went Top Five. The Beastie Boys rode rap metal to platinum heaven with hits like "Fight for Your Right to Party," and Tone-Löc's "Wild Thing," with its Van Halen guitar hook, went double platinum early this year.

Run-D.M.C. includes several other rap classics as well. The group's first two singles, "It's Like That" and "Hard Times," paint bleak pictures of unemployment, inflation and war but go on to promote school, work and church as a way out. But the positive message wasn't simply a public service. "I was trying to get a record that was positive," Run says, "because I knew that the radio didn't want to play anything negative."

On tracks like "Sucker M.C.'s," Run and D.M.C. rapped over little more than an infectious drum-machine beat spiced up with synthesized hand-claps, capturing on vinyl what rappers had been doing in New York City parks for years. Although radio initially bridled at the minimal approach, the record's hip street sound eventually proved irresistible, giving creedence to Run's assessment of the album: "It's good to be raw."

Run's brother, Russell Simmons, who went on to become rap's foremost impresario as co-owner of Def Jam Records, helped arrange the vocals and coproduced the album with Larry Smith, a veteran R&B musician who programmed the drum machines and supplied the odd organ swoosh. Jam Master Jay scratched in percussion effects while the two rappers took a novel tag-team approach, uncannily finishing each other's lines, phrases and even words.

Besides some heavy breathing, Smith made a unique contribution to "Wake Up." "If you really listen to the record," Smith says, "you'll hear somebody peeing in the toilet and flushing it. That was me!"

Rolling Stone's Original 1984 Review

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