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.

57

Pete Townshend, ‘Empty Glass’

On Empty Glass, his second solo album, Pete Townshend chronicled the personal tumult he was experiencing and initiated an adult style of songwriting that helped reenergize the singer-songwriter tradition in the Eighties.

Eight of the ten songs were written following Who drummer Keith Moon's death late in 1978. In December of 1979, during the band's American tour, eleven fans died in a preconcert crush outside Riverfront Coliseum, in Cincinnati. Meanwhile, the members of the Who were repeatedly dismissed as worn-out ancients by Britain's scornful punks.

Amid the turmoil, Townshend resolved to make a solo album. "In a way, I've got the punk explosion to thank for making that decision," he said at the time. "It freed me. It allowed me to be myself. It dignified me, in a way, to be cast to one side. I felt uneasy with the way the Who were inevitably on the road to mega-stardom. . . . [It] was the most important thing I've ever done for me — to allow me to have a new beginning, to actually grow."

On Empty Glass, Townshend's ambivalent obsession with punk dominates both the lyrics and the music. Produced by Chris Thomas, who'd recently worked with the Pretenders and the Sex Pistols, the album was raw, muscular and focused in a way the Who never would be again.

Although he'd begun a spiral of booze and drugs that would lead to a bout with alcoholism and a temporary split with his wife, Karen, Townshend pledged in "A Little Is Enough" to make the best of their fitful marriage. "I was able to very easily put into words something that had actually happened to me when I was a thirty-four-year-old," he said. "It's very emotional, but it's also very straightforward and clear."

Of course, a literal reading of a songwriter as complex as Townshend can be deceptive, as in "Rough Boys" and "And I Moved" (written for Bette Midler), taken by some as confessions of homosexual lust. Townshend said, "A lot of gays and a lot of bisexuals wrote to me congratulating me on this so-called coming out. I think in both cases the images are very angry, aren't they? In 'Rough Boys,' the line 'Come over here, I want to bite and kiss you' is about 'I can scare you! I can frighten you! I can hurt all you macho individuals simply by coming up and pretending to be gay!' And that's what I really meant in that song, I think."

He dismissed "Let My Love Open the Door" as "just a ditty," but it charted as high as any Who single ever had, reaching Number Nine. "If I disagree with the fact that [Empty Glass] is the best work I've done in a long time, I would be fooling you," Townshend said in 1982. Later, he admitted that the Who seemed much less viable as a result: "I think the only thing that really went wrong was that I realized, as soon as Empty Glass was finished, 'Hey, this is it. I'm not able to achieve with the band what I've achieved here.'"

Rolling Stone's Original 1980 Review

Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Pete Townshend

56

Joy Division, ‘Closer’

"It's a heavy album," says Bernard Sumner, who played guitar and keyboards with Joy Division and still can't listen to Closer. "It was a voyage into the dark side of yourself."

"Decades," the masterpiece that closes the record, seems to tell of that voyage: "We knocked on the doors of hell's darker chambers/Pushed to the limit, we let ourselves in/Watched from the wings as the scenes were replaying/We saw ourselves now as we never have seen."

The eerie soundscapes and fatalistic lyrics on Closer (re-released on Qwest/Warner Bros.) take listeners down into the abyss and challenge them to crawl back out. Metal machine rhythms and twisted, tortured guitars echo Ian Curtis's anguished vocals, while synthesizers add a feeling of steely, high-tech alienation. Peter Hook's bass often carries the melody, an innovation much copied since — there's not a doom rocker around who doesn't owe something to Joy Division, but they're just gray imitations of a deep, dark band.

"Mother I tried/Please believe me/I'm doing the best that I can/I'm ashamed of the things I've been put through/I'm ashamed of the person I am," Curtis sang on "Isolation." As if to prove he really meant it, Curtis took his life soon after the album was recorded, hours before the band was to embark on its first American tour (the band changed its name and carried on as New Order).

Joy Division's powerful first album, Unknown Pleasures, had topped the British independent charts in 1979, yet the members of the band weren't fully satisfied with the sound of it. "We wanted it to be more powerful," says Sumner. Less than a year later they recorded Closer. Curtis acted as musical director; as Sumner says, "The madder the music sounded, the more pleased he would be with it."

The members of the band would sleep all day and work through the night, undisturbed, until dawn, when twittering birds would sometimes find their way onto the studio tapes. Sumner says that while they were recording a room sound, they picked up a phantom whistling the tune of "Decades" — odd, since the building was otherwise deserted. Figuring it was a bad omen, they left it off the record.

Ironically, Curtis dropped hints about his fate, yet no one could decipher them. He once told Sumner, "I feel like I'm caught in a whirlpool and I'm being dragged down and there's nothing I can do about it." "But he wouldn't explain what he meant," says Sumner. "I think he wanted someone to help him, but he didn't want to ask."

Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Closer' by Joy Division

Remembering Joy Division's Ian Curtis 30 Years After His Death

55

John Fogerty, ‘Centerfield’

John Fogerty began recording Centerfield, the album that revived his long-dormant career, right after he attended the major-league-baseball All-Star Game at San Francisco's Candlestick Park in the summer of 1984. Fogerty's seats were, he notes, in center field. "I was very aware of the connotation of center field — the comeback, spotlight angle of it," says Fogerty. "It all seemed very Zen-like and cosmic to me at the time."

Fogerty's hopes were, of course, rewarded. Centerfield went on to become his first Number One album since his departure from Creedence Clearwater Revival, and two of its singles, "Old Man Down the Road" and "Rock and Roll Girls," went Top Twenty. Creatively, the album found Fogerty at the top of his form, and it contains songs that rival his best work from CCR's glory days.

Centerfield shows Fogerty to be a mature record maker. It is a concept album that can be taken as simply a great collection of songs, a kind of "Whitman's sampler of what John Fogerty is about," as he puts it. But look a little deeper and one finds an intensely autobiographical album: a survivor's tale that celebrates the durability of rock & roll and the power inherent in remaining true to one's own beliefs.

While some of the songs on Centerfield, like "Rock and Roll Girls" and "Big Train (From Memphis)," evoke lost innocence, others cynically portray Fogerty's experiences in the music business. The title of "Vanz Kant Danz," which was originally named "Zanz Kant Danz," refers to Saul Zaentz, the head of Fogerty's former record label, and "Searchlight" chronicles the emotional toll the CCR years had taken on Fogerty. But the story Fogerty tells on Centerfield has a happy ending. The title track, of course, is the centerpiece of the album, a song about getting another chance at the big time, and "I Can't Help Myself" expresses the excitement John Fogerty felt at once again being a player on the rock scene.

Fogerty had been trying to write songs for an album for years, but he says they just didn't come together. Toward the end of 1983 he finally regained his muse. "Stuff just suddenly started to click," he says. "So much so that I began to think, 'I'm gonna be able to make a record pretty soon.'" He came up with about twelve songs but narrowed the song list down to the nine that appear on the album.

The actual recording of Centerfield took two months at the Plant, the Sausalito, California, recording studio best known as the site of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours sessions, and cost just $35,000. Because Fogerty worked from detailed demos and notes, recording was straightforward and painless. "Centerfield, probably more than any record that will ever be made, is a result of one guy's homemade production," says Fogerty. "From the artist to the listener. Here's a case where the guy who wrote the songs literally put all the sprockets on the drums. It wasn't shipped off to have a bunch of roadies to do — each thing was actually hand-done by me."

For Fogerty, everything was riding on the fate of the album. "It was more than a comeback," he says. "There were a bunch of things that were going to be set right once the thing was really ready. I had to do more than just finish the sucker — it had to be good enough to be a hit. There was a lot of stuff to be proven. It was more than the act of just finishing the race — I had to win the race."

John Fogerty's 'Centerfield' Gets Honored by Baseball Hall of Fame

Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitarists: John Fogerty

54

Talking Heads, ‘Speaking in Tongues’

"Speaking in Tongues was a lighter record," says Talking Heads singer David Byrne, referring to the band's 1983 release. "I guess we wanted to show that we weren't totally one-sided. We were in danger of being categorized as a kind of quirky, gloomy bunch of weirdos."

The band's playful side indeed shines through on the album's nine songs, which include such tracks as the wobbly "Making Flippy Floppy," the animated "Girlfriend Is Better" and the cheery "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)." For all its lightheartedness, however, the album still managed to fuse the band's disparate musical interests, most notably the Afro-funk that Byrne had led the band to explore on its preceding album, Remain in Light, and the dance-oriented sounds that drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth had pursued with the Tom Tom Club. And years of touring had given the Heads a sense of how to craft songs that would appeal to their audience.

"By playing live, you figure out what it is that makes people jump up and down and what it is that makes them sit in their chair," says Frantz. "When it came time to do Speaking in Tongues, we knew we were going out on the road. It's not like everything is premeditated, but we had this feeling that it's not just about art. It's also about entertainment. When we went out on tour after that, it was the first time that the kids would go nuts for the songs off the current album. In the past they'd go for the old ones, like 'Psycho Killer' and 'Take Me to the River.'"

The band wrote the tracks at the Blank Tapes recording studio in New York.

"The writing was done by four people sitting down in a studio and just rolling the tape," says Frantz. "We'd record these long, extended grooves and then bring in people like Alex Weir to add a little bit of additional guitar and various other people, like keyboardist Wally Badarou."

Byrne sang nonsense lyrics, which he later refined. "I sang all the words in gibberish first," he says, "and then made words to fit later. I'd done that a little bit before, but it was the first time I'd done it for a whole record."

"Some of the gibberish actually made sense," says Weymouth. "Certain phrases like 'I've got rockets in my pockets,' on 'Moon Rocks,' actually remained on the record from the first improvisational takes. We didn't want to lose them, because they were so free and they fit right in."

The chorus in the opening song, "Burning Down the House," was inspired by a Parliament-Funkadelic show. "I heard these kids in the audience screaming, 'Burn down the house,'" says Frantz, "and I thought, 'Wow, that sounds like a song.'

"I guess it was a good title, because I heard it on classic rock radio twice today," Frantz says now. "They won't play our new stuff, but they'll play the old stuff. Hey, it was a classic title. But what we really wanted to do was rock the house."

Rolling Stone's Original 1983 Review

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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