Home Music Music Lists

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.

69

LL Cool J, ‘Radio’

LL Cool J (Born James Todd Smith) was seventeen years old when he recorded this early rap masterpiece. Rhymes such as "They hear me, they fear me/My funky poetry/I'm improving the conditions of the rap industry" proved prophetic — Radio went platinum, ushering in rap's blockbuster era and heralding the arrival of a superb rapper.

The liner notes say, "Reduced by Rick Rubin," and simplicity was the key to Radio. "We were going to bring it down, break it down, reduce it to its most minimal form — like real low," says LL

But its minimalism wasn't what made Radio a rap landmark. Before 1984, most rappers had simply recited continuous rhymes over four minutes of groove. Rubin arranged raps like pop songs, with verses, choruses and bridges. So that LL's rhymes could fit into this new format, Rubin says, "I would say, 'You've got twelve lines, and you've got to do it in eight.' And LL would rewrite it so it worked in eight. It was just making rap more like songs."

LL Cool J stands for "Ladies Love Cool James"; he became one of rap's first heartthrobs, partly because of his dimpled good looks and macho swagger, but also because Radio includes two of the earliest rap ballads, the cuddly "I Want You" and "I Can Give You More."

One of Radio's most powerful tracks is "Rock the Bells." Oddly enough, the track has no bells on it. LL was set to record the track using a cowbell break from a song called "Mardi Gras," until Run-D.M.C. used the identical best on its "Peter Piper." As LL puts it, "I got housed." Rubin suggested using a percussion break from the go-go great Trouble Funk instead, and LL turned in a ferocious performance; the moment when he yells, "Rock the bells!" and the go-go beat kicks in is one of the most dramatic in rap.

The album's opener, "I Can't Live Without My Radio," became a B-boy anthem. Now that LL has reached the advanced age of twenty-two, he says he is still unable to live without his radio. "But now it's in my car — know what I mean?"

Rolling Stone's Original 1986 Review

Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Radio' by LL Cool J

68

The Specials, ‘The Specials’

The Specials found a happy medium between the aggression of punk and the more danceable, upbeat rhythms of ska. Sporting porkpie hats and two-tone suits, the racially mixed seven-member band from Coventry, in Britain, spearheaded a ska renaissance. The Specials' debut album, produced by Elvis Costello, also launched the briefly successful 2-Tone Record label.

The Specials opens with a cover of Robert "Dandy" Thompson's ska anthem "A Message to You Rudy," then dives into more manic numbers, like a gritty version of Rufus Thomas's "Do the Dog" and the band's own "Concrete Jungle."

In his first outing as a producer, Costello captured the spirit of the Specials' frenetic live shows by re-creating a club environment in the studio. "It was a terrific atmosphere," says vocalist Neville Staples of the sessions at London's PW studios. "We just went in and played our show. It was all live in the studio."

In fact, for the song "Nite Club," the band even brought in an audience. "We had roadies, Chrissie Hynde and a few other friends," says Staples. "It was a laugh, because we had a little drink to get the pub atmosphere going."

"We wanted it to be like the first Clash album," said bassist Horace Panter shortly after the album's U.S. release in 1980. "Not necessarily produced, just recorded. Costello was more of an observer, if you like. Suggesting things that we were too involved in to see ourselves."

In addition to its punk-meets-reggae sensibility, The Specials is charged with antiracist sentiment: "Just because you're a black boy/Just because you're a white/It doesn't mean you've got to hate him/Doesn't mean you got to fight," sings Terry Hall in the calypso-flavored "Doesn't Make It All Right."

"We were working as a black and white unit," says Staples. "At the time there was a lot of racism happening. So we just thought, 'Well, we went to school with black and white guys. Instead of fighting and calling people names, let's work together.' So we combined black music with punk. We just mixed the two cultures."

67

Randy Newman, ‘Trouble in Paradise’

"Nothing," says Randy Newman when asked what he had been thinking about when he began work on his eighth album, Trouble in Paradise. "I had no cohesive plan in mind."

A cynical tour de force, Trouble in Paradise sets several of Newman's nastiest portraits of prejudice, greed, ego and small-mindedness against some of the most striking music of his career. "It came to be about places and situations that could be ideal," says Newman, "but are somehow messed up."

Newman is clearly one of pop music's preeminent songwriters. But with Trouble in Paradise, he also mastered the art of great record making. Today it stands as one of the best albums of his career, a fully realized collection of story-songs in which Newman's dark take on the world is fully fleshed out.

Although the best-known song is Newman's love-hate letter to his hometown, "I Love L.A." ("Look at that mountain/Look at those trees/Look at that bum over there, man/He's down on his knees"), Trouble in Paradise is full of clever material. "Christmas in Cape Town," with its disturbingly spooky music, is a poignant tale of racism and mean-spiritedness. In "Mikey's," two old-timers complain about what the world is coming to, distressed by the minorities now frequenting their favorite bar. "There's a Party at My House" sounds like a good-time rocker, until the punch line ("Hey Bobby, get the rope"), which hints at kinky escapades.

The centerpiece of the record is "My Life Is Good," which details the self-importance of a Hollywood wheeler-dealer. Asked about the similarities between the song's protagonist and himself, Newman laughs and says, "If I were that big a jerk, I wouldn't admit to it."

The arrangements throughout the album have a cinematic quality (Newman worked on movie scores to The Natural and Ragtime). "His songs are quite visual," says Lenny Waronker, who coproduced the album with Russ Titelman. "His songs are like little movies. It's like scoring eleven films."

The album includes some impressive cameos: Don Henley, Lindsey Buckingham, Christine McVie, Rickie Lee Jones, Bob Seger, Wendy Waldman, Linda Ronstadt, Jennifer Warnes and Paul Simon all contribute. "His peers have such a high regard for him," says Waronker. "They wanted to be a part of it and help get Randy's stuff out to a lot of people."

How does Newman feel now about Trouble in Paradise? "It's a pretty good batch of songs," he says. "There are things about it I love. Like the first half of 'Miami.' I like the two ballads, 'Real Emotional Girl' and 'Same Girl.' And 'My Life Is Good' — although if I had to do it again, I might not do it the same way. It might be funnier just with piano."

Rolling Stone's Original 1983 Review

66

The Neville Brothers, ‘Fiyo on the Bayou’

Keith Richards thought the Neville Brothers' Fiyo on the Bayou was the best album of 1981. Most music fans never had a chance to form an opinion. "I knew it wasn't going to get played on the radio," says Cyril Neville. "So I didn't build up any false hopes. We just made the best record we could."

With Fiyo on the Bayou, the Neville Brothers — singer Aaron, keyboardist and singer Art, saxophonist Charles and percussionist Cyril — set out to capture their undisciplined sound, descended from New Orleans Mardi Gras music, while commercializing it enough to reach a broad audience.

The tracks on Fiyo on the Bayou can be divided into two distinct categories: dance-floor burners (like "Hey Pocky Way" and "Sweet Honey Dripper") and showcase ballads for the band's primo canary, Aaron (like "Mona Lisa" and "The Ten Commandments of Love").

"The first time I saw the Nevilles was at the Bottom Line, in New York," says producer Joel Dom. "They completely blew me out of the water."

Dorn pitched a Nevilles deal to A&M, which initially didn't share the producer's enthusiasm. "A&M thought the Nevilles were too ethnic and too regional," he says. Concurrently, singer Bette Midler — whom Dorn had produced and who is also a Nevilles fan — lobbied A&M on behalf of the band. The label eventually gave Dorn the green light.

A self-admitted "sucker" for Aaron's angelic voice, Dorn painstakingly surrounded it with lush orchestration. "When we cut 'Mona Lisa,' we used the New York Philharmonic," says Dorn, "and Aaron sang live in the booth. We turned out all the lights except for one spot that was focused on a Nat 'King' Cole album. He sang the whole song to that album."

Of course, everyone involved was convinced he had a hit on his hands. "It was one of the few times that I've made a record and was 100 percent satisfied when we finished," says Dorn. "I felt Fiyo on the Bayou was the culmination of my career." But the title of the album proved confusing. Both Cyril and keyboardist Art Neville had been members of the seminal New Orleans band the Meters, which had released a 1975 album entitled Fire on the Bayou! Inclusion of a new version of the Meters' signature tune "Hey Pocky Way" on Fiyo further muddied the bayou. "We wanted those songs to be heard by more people," says Aaron.

Most radio stations were just as puzzled by the Nevilles' style, which didn't fit easily into any programming format. "We just couldn't get any airplay," says Dorn. "It was the kind of record where I wished I could have gone door-to-door and said, 'Here — listen to this record!'"

65

10,000 Maniacs, ‘In My Tribe’

In My Tribe — a feast of acoustic rockers centered around singer Natalie Merchant's alluring vocals and a jangly guitar sound — vaulted 10,000 Maniacs from underground status into the Top Forty. And not a moment too soon, either: The third album from the upstate-New York cult band was literally a make-or-break affair.

"There was a lot of pressure on us," says keyboardist and band cofounder Dennis Drew. "If Tribe hadn't been successful, there never would have been another album."

In My Tribe is more than a successful record — it is a poetic, heartfelt message about social concerns such as alcoholism, child abuse and illiteracy.

The Maniacs didn't always have such a passionate sense of purpose. Drew and Steven Gustafson, both college-radio DJs, formed a band called Still Life, which started out covering Joy Division and Gang of Four songs. Merchant joined after wandering into the radio station armed with a pile of LPs she wanted heard on the air. Also recruited were guitarist Rob Buck and John Lombardo, a seasoned composer-guitarist who served as the group's major creative force. Drummer Jerome Augustyniak came on board in 1982, and the group — after changing its name — released an independent EP and album before moving to Elektra Records.

The Maniacs' major-label debut, The Wishing Chair, won fine reviews but met with indifference outside alternative-music circles. Lombardo quit under stormy circumstances, and the anxiety proved to be contagious. After rejecting demos for the band's next album, Elektra insisted the group work with producer Peter Asher, best known for his work with Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor.

The shotgun marriage worked out in the end, but it was a shaky trip to the altar. The band felt uncomfortable recording in Los Angeles, Asher's home turf. The Maniacs were also unhappy with many of Asher's additions to their sound, including computerized drums. Asher insists he was merely "cajoling" the band into doing its best work.

Elektra suggested doing a familiar song as the lead single, resulting in a cover of Cat Stevens's "Peace Train." The gambit failed to break the group, and the song was later removed from the album after Stevens — a converted Muslim — called for the death of Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie. The Maniacs ultimately scored with their sadly lilting second single, "Like the Weather." It took two years for In My Tribe to go platinum, but even the band agrees it was better late than never.

"The album gave us a great chance to really coalesce as a band," says Drew. "At that point we had to save our career and make a good record. We fucking buckled up, tightened our belt and did it."

64

Living Colour, ‘Vivid’

Screaming electric guitar punctuates the raucous melodies and street-smart lyrics on Vivid, an album that not only marked the auspicious debut of the hard-rocking band Living Colour but was also credited with breaking down racial barriers in pop music. The band proved to be the first black rock group to attract a large mainstream audience since Sly and the Family Stone in the early Seventies, and the album's ascent was accompanied by as much hubbub over the band's ethnic makeup as its compelling style.

"It wasn't like the idea of Vivid or Living Colour was generated by some sort of desire to make it in the white world of rock music," says lead guitarist and group founder Vernon Reid. "There was a lot of talk about it. But it's not odd that black people play rock & roll — what's really odd is that people think it's odd. It's a shame more people didn't focus on the music itself, because that's what we wanted."

The music itself is an intoxicating brew of hard, grinding rock with splashes of funk, jazz, reggae, rap, punk and even country rhythms. Darting from the hip-hop twang of "Broken Hearts" to the philosophical metal assault of "Middle Man," the band refuses to stay stuck in any single groove. Vivid's opening track, "Cult of Personality," is the real kicker, a bursting riff-rock anthem on the harmful effects of idolatry and blind faith that ironically helped catapult Living Colour to the status of pop icon.

The group's seeming overnight success was actually years in the making. Born in England and raised in Brooklyn, Reid earned his musical chops during the early Eighties playing guitar in electric jazz outfits like Defunkt and Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society. He formed Living Colour as a trio in 1984, going through various configurations for two years before hooking up with singer Corey Glover, drummer William Calhoun and bassist Muzz Skillings. Then came the real stroke of luck: Reid was called in to play on Mick Jagger's solo album, Primitive Cool, and the Stone dropped by the New York punk club CBGB to catch Living Colour's show.

Jagger got so worked up over the set that he took a week off from mixing his own album to produce two demos — "Glamour Boys" and "Which Way to America?" — for the fledgling group. After the Jagger tapes made the rounds and snagged Living Colour a record deal, the band called in Primitive Cool coproducer Ed Stasium to oversee the rest of the album. Jagger, whose demos appear in their original form on Vivid, came back later to blow harmonica on "Broken Hearts," while other studio guests included Public Enemy's Chuck D. and Flavor Flav, delivering a social-comm