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.

20

Pretenders, ‘Pretenders’

"To summarize the Pretenders, says Chrissie Hynde, the band's vocalist, songwriter and founder, "all I can say is that we were the genuine article. In fact, we were so genuine we killed ourselves." She is referring to the drug-related deaths of original band members James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon in the early Eighties. "We never had any pretensions," she continues. "If it sounded dangerous, it was because it was dangerous."

Indeed, on Pretenders, the band backs Hynde's potent vocals with fast, aggressive playing. She wastes no time on politeness or protocol; her songs are blunt, hard-nosed treatises on social and sexual politics, such as the dark, carnal "Tattooed Love Boys." A sense of defiant self-worth emerges in the soulful, chugging "Brass in Pocket," in which Hynde sings, "I'm special, so special/I've got to have some of your attention/Give it to me!"

As Ken Tucker wrote in a Rolling Stone review, Pretenders tells stories "about how good, tempestuous sex can be redemptive; how bad relationships thrive on degrees of contempt; how passionate self-absorption can sometimes open up into a greater understanding of the people with whom you're involved."

By 1980, Hynde — who grew up in Akron, Ohio — had been living in England for the better part of a decade. As a part-time writer for the British music weekly New Musical Express, she'd found herself sometimes questioning the validity of that line of work. "In 1973, I realized that there was no point in being a journalist and just knocking everything that was going on at the time," Hynde says. "Then it occurred to me, 'What the hell, why not me?' About 1976, I saw that the moment was coming when I could get away with it. It's all about timing, you see. If you wait long enough, your number comes up."

She met three musicians from Hereford, near Wales — guitarist Honeyman-Scott, bass player Farndon and drummer Martin Chambers — and they formed the Pretenders. Their music was more diverse than the machine-gun rhythms of punk, because the three Britons were accomplished musicians and Hynde had grown up on a diet of AM radio. "I didn't quite fit into the London punk scene because I'd been listening to too many Bobby Womack albums, you know?" says Hynde. "My musical background was a little too rich for the punk thing."

The Pretenders did share with punk an outsider's contempt for society, however. The debut album was an uncensored expression of the motivations that drew Hynde and the others to rock & roll in the first place. "I thought being in a band was an antiestablishment lifestyle," he says. "It's only ever been my interest to maintain that, and to maintain my freedom as a bum. I don't want to be recognized; I don't want to be hassled. I just want to play guitar in a rock & roll band."

19

Lou Reed, ‘New York’

"Faulkner had the South; Joyce had Dublin; I've got New York — and the environs," said Lou Reed this past spring, and he was not being immodest. The Big Apple, rotten or otherwise, has been both the setting for and subject of Reed's ongoing novel-in-music since the mid-Sixties, when he penned his first chapters on drugs, sex and desperation in the urban shadows and set them to the primal beat of the Velvet Underground.

But on his 1989 installment, New York, Reed took Manhattan and turned it inside out with a vengeance fueled by moral outrage. In a carefully scripted fourteen-song suite, he addressed the plight of the homeless, the hopeless and victims of AIDS and racial prejudice with the same clenched, bristling imagery and acidic wit he'd once applied to the city's uptown glitterati and downtown bohemians.

Reed then scored his libretto for two guitars (Reed and Mike Rathke), bass (Rob Wasserman) and drums (Fred Maher, who coproduced with Reed). The sound of New York is rooted in the brute metallic attack of the original Velvets; drummer Maureen Tucker even played on two songs, including the Andy Warhol tribute "Dime Store Mystery."

Except for an occasional overdub, New York was recorded live in the studio. Indeed, the false start at the beginning of "Romeo Had Juliette," the album's opening track, is exactly as Reed and crew flubbed it on the first day of recording. "It was the first song I had written," Reed told Rolling Stone shortly after the album's release. "We went in and did it in a day. And that's the take, the one you hear."

Prior to recording, Reed put the songs through an intense three-month bout of editing and rewriting at his home in New Jersey. "Even before pen hits paper, I really self-edit a lot," he explained. "So when I go to write something, it's pretty close, even just the first draft But it's way better by the sixth."

When a song started to take shape. Reed would bring in Rathke to play along on guitar, "because I couldn't play my part and sing at the same time," said Reed. "It was too new. Mike played my guitar part, and I would sing, for real. And where it didn't work, I rewrote it there, rewrote it and rewrote it until every word was exact."

While Reed insisted in New York's liner notes that the album was designed to be listened to in a single sitting, "as though it were a book or a movie," he admitted in conversation that the songs were not sequenced in any particular dramatic order.

"We had tried to put the songs in order, to tell the story moodwise and emotionally," said Reed. "And when it didn't work, it was so bad it was unbelievable. Then Victor [Deyglio], one of the engineers, said, 'There's a trick I've learned over the years. Why not put it in the order that it was recorded in?' And there it was. Wow!"

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Lou Reed

Rolling Stone's Original 1989 Review

18

Prince, ‘Dirty Mind’

Dirty Mind marked Prince's coming of age. It was the first album on which he successfully synthesized the rock and soul he had grown up on into a vibrant, strikingly original sound, at the same time turning his own sexuality and flamboyance into a clear-cut style and stance. His vocals — including crystal-clear falsettos — established Prince as one of the preeminent pop singers of the Eighties.

If Marvin Gaye had opened the bedroom door a crack nearly a decade earlier with sexually frank songs like "You Sure Love to Ball," Prince ripped that door right off its hinges. Dirty Mind's lyrics cover oral sex ("Head"), incest ("Sister") and a ménage à trois gone bad ("When You Were Mine") and set a new standard for mainstream pop music, paving the way for tamer tracks like George Michael's "I Want Your Sex."

Then there is the music: a daring mix of modern technology, raw rock & roll and irresistible funk. Prince's keyboard-dominated "Minneapolis sound" became the blueprint for a generation of soul, funk and pop groups. His influence is evident in songs ranging from Ready for the World's "Oh Sheila" to Fine Young Cannibals' "She Drives Me Crazy."

Working mostly alone in a cramped, makeshift sixteen-track basement studio in his Minneapolis home on Lake Minnetonka, Prince created Dirty Mind in a few months. Many of the songs were cut quickly — often in one night. He took engineering credit under the pseudonym Jamie Starr. "Maybe he didn't want it to seem like he did everything," says keyboardist Matt Fink, who helped write the album's title track and played on both "Head" and "Do It All Night." About half of the material was written during a tour that found Prince and his band opening for soul star Rick James; Prince whipped up "When You Were Mine" in a Florida hotel room. "It was probably inspired by an old girlfriend," says Fink.

The title track was based on a jam riff Fink created that Prince took a fancy to when he heard the band playing it one day during rehearsal. "He asked me to come over to his house," says Fink. "I left at 2:00 a.m. after we cut basic tracks. By the next morning he'd finished it."

Although Prince's sexuality was apparent on his first two albums, it came to the forefront on Dirty Mind. "He really found himself with that album," says Bobby Z, who was the drummer in Prince's band at the time. "I think he wrote better songs. And the roughness of it gave it an edge — it was a little more garage sounding."

"That really was him at the time," says Fink. "He was rejoicing in his own sexuality. He was saying, 'Sex is a reality, don't be afraid of it.'"

Prince naturally expected the album to be controversial. "He knew he was entering some hot soup," says Bobby Z. "Any time you do anything where you're pushing the envelope, you know?"

But Prince's father wasn't impressed. "When I first played Dirty Mind for him," Prince once told a reporter, "he said, 'You're swearing on the record. Why do you have to do that?' And I said, 'Because I swear.'"

Rolling Stone's Original 1981 Review

17

The Police, ‘Synchronicity’

The last Police album was the best Police album — musically and thematically. Synchronicity was as good as thinking man's New Wave ever got. On it, singer, bassist and chief songwriter Sting applied Swiss psychologist Carl Jung's theories of the collective unconsciousness and mystical coincidence (a.k.a. synchronicity) to personal, embittered studies of pain, vengeance and the agony of love's labors lost.

The material was dark but well suited to the group's method of interaction in the studio: "violence," according to Sting in a 1983 interview. "I'll argue till the cows come home about something I believe in, and so will Andy and Stewart," he said, referring to guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland. "Synchronicity went through all kinds of horrendous cogs and gears to come out, emotionally and technically, the way it did."

It was the last album by the fractious Police, who quietly dissolved after a half-hearted and unsuccessful attempt to reunite in the studio three years later. Yet there was little evidence of battle on Synchronicity. Sting's bracing tenor was dramatically framed by the subtle third-world inflections in Copeland's drumming and Summers's delicately serrated guitar. The band displayed a refined sense of pop drama in "Every Breath You Take" — a chilling ode to obsession heightened by a haunting guitar riff — and the gothic strains of "King of Pain."

Closer to the surface were Sting's own wounds suffered during a messy divorce in 1982 from actress Frances Tomelty, his wife of seven years. Afterward, he went to Jamaica, staying at novelist Ian Fleming's old house and writing a large chunk of Synchronicity — including "Every Breath You Take," "King of Pain" and "Wrapped Around Your Finger" — at the same desk Fleming had written his James Bond novels. The recurring images of entrapment and pain in Sting's lyrics dovetailed with his interest in Jungian theory, which he set to music in "Synchronicity I" and "Synchronicity II."

"The title of the album refers to coincidence and things being connected without there being a logical link," he said. Sting has continued to psychoanalyze himself in song as a solo artist, but Synchronicity captured him at a particularly vulnerable and eloquent juncture in his career. As he himself said, "I do my best work when I'm in pain and turmoil."

Rolling Stone's Original 1983 Review

Photos: Hot Rock Offspring featuring Madonna, Sting and More Stars' Famous Kids

16

Prince, ‘1999’

Recording a two-record set at a time when he had yet to become a major star was a risky thing for Prince to do — but the risk paid off. Upon its release. 1999 became Prince's biggest seller; two singles, "Little Red Corvette" and "Delirious," went Top Ten, while the title track reached Number Twelve. Although it contained only eleven songs, clocking in at nearly seventy minutes, 1999 gave Prince the room he needed to address some of his favorite topics: sex, romance, freedom and even rock critics, who were toyed with in "All the Critics Love U in New York."

The album was at once both Prince's most experimental and his most commercial. Three of the songs were each more than eight minutes in length, including "Lady Cab Driver," which features one of his most danceable grooves. The title track is a prime example of Prince's pop craftsmanship, utilizing multiple lead vocals. The striking lyrics — about dancing the night away in the face of Armageddon — remain the perfect metaphor for the modern age. While "Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)" found him working with synthesizers and drum machines, creating disturbingly ominous textures, "Little Red Corvette" was a straightforward, infectious rocker that leaped onto pop radio.

"I think he was trying to become as mainstream as possible, without violating his own philosophy, without having to compromise any of his ideas," says keyboardist Matt Fink, who was a member of Prince's band the Revolution at the time. "To some extent, he was trying to make the music sound nice, something that would be pleasing to the ear of the average person who listens to the radio, yet send a message. I mean, '1999' was pretty different for a message. Not your average bubblegum hit."

Prince recorded much of the album at Uptown, his name for the basement studio he had built in his infamous purple house, located in a suburb of Minneapolis. The basement studio was more sophisticated than the one he had used for Dirty Mind and included a twenty-four-track recorder. "The groove got settled," says drummer Bobby Z. "He knew it was back to dance. There wasn't anymore of the 'Ronnie Talk to Russia' kind of songs. There was some weird stuff, like 'Something in the Water,' but it was still very funky. I think he found his groove, and the groove never left."

Although only Prince was billed on 1999 — like the three releases that preceded it — the album portended the integration of his band into future recording projects. He shared some of the lead vocal spots with keyboardist Lisa Coleman and guitarist Dez Dickerson, and Dickerson contributed the searing solos on "Little Red Corvette." On the psychedelic purple album cover, in small, backward lettering that partially obscures the i in "Prince" are the words "and the Revolution." "He was setting the public up for something that was yet to come," says Bobby Z.

Bobby Z. remembers the months Prince spent on 1999 as a period of intense creativity, when Prince's credo was "Anything goes." "A lot of experimental sound and backwards stuff was tried," says the drummer. "'Lady Cab Driver' was very innovative with the street sounds and almost a kind of rap. 'Something in the Water' was definitely using the Linn drum machine to its fullest. Prince was experimenting to get to something like the next album [Purple Rain]; 1999 gave him the keys to a lot of doors."

Photos: Prince's Welcome 2 America Tour at MSG

Rolling Stone's Original 1982 Review

15

The Replacements, ‘Let It Be’

After three albums of endearingly loud, fast rock & roll, the Replacements took a giant step forward without surrendering their raucous edge on Let It Be. By then, leader Paul Westerberg had developed into a first-rate songwriter, capable of soul-baring introspection ("Unsatisfied"), wry character studies ("Androgynous") and frenzied, go-for-broke rock ("We're Coming Out"). Let It Be caught one of America's most promising bands at an early creative peak, straddling the line between inspired amateurism and accomplished, deliberate craftsmanship.

For Westerberg, Let It Be was a break with the Replacements' punk aesthetic. "Playing that kind of noisy, fake hardcore rock was getting us nowhere, and it wasn't a lot of fun," he says. "This was the first time I had songs that we arranged, rather than just banging out riffs and giving them titles." The anthemic opening number, "I Will Dare," was written on acoustic guitar — a first for Westerberg.

Constrained by what people wanted the group to be — the loud, sloppy and lovable Mats, as they were known to fans — Westerberg let his feelings out on Let It Be with songs like "Unsatisfied." "I was not terribly happy," admits Westerberg. "It was just the feeling that we're never going anywhere and the music we're playing is not the music I feel and I don't know what to do and I don't know how to express myself. I felt that one to the absolute bone when I did it."

Let It Be, cut at a small Minneapolis studio, Blackberry Way, was the final album in which the Replacements' hell-raising lead guitarist, Bob Stinson, had a key role, and blowouts like "We're Coming Out" were written with him in mind. Stinson was present but not really accounted for on the next studio album, Tim, and was out of the band by the time Pleased to Meet Me was recorded. His younger brother, Tommy, remains the band's bassist, and Chris Mars the drummer.

The title Let It Be, of course, came from the Beatles. Appropriating it, says Westerberg, "was our way of saying that nothing is sacred, that the Beatles were just a damn fine rock & roll band. We seriously were gonna call the next record Let It Bleed." The songs on Let It Be were cut quickly and crudely. "We didn't have a producer looking over our shoulder, saying, 'This isn't done, boys,'" Westerberg says. Yet Let It Be has a solid emotional core, and the Replacements' evolution was fitting. "The jump from a wild punk band to one that actually plays songs and has some interesting stuff came at the right time," says Westerberg.

Rolling Stone's Original 1985 Review

14

Peter Gabriel, ‘So’

"I was thinking of doing a blues and soul album," says Peter Gabriel about the origins of So, his multiplatinum 1986 album. "I was going to do half existing songs — favorite songs from my teenage years — and half new stuff. 'Sledgehammer' was the first song I developed for that project."

It was also the first single from So. Propelled by a powerful groove and a groundbreaking Claymation video, "Sledgehammer" went to Number One, opening the door for the album's commercial success. Daniel Lanois, who coproduced Gabriel's instrumental soundtrack for the film Birdy and then was invited back to work on So, says he and Gabriel wanted the album to be engaging and accessible.

"We had mutually decided on a philosophy for the record — that we would incorporate a playfulness and a humanness," says Lanois. "I thought it was important for Peter to be very clear with some of these songs. I wanted the listener to be able to touch the voice. I was definitely looking to bring Peter to the foreground."

Despite its mass appeal, however, So also presented compelling challenges. "Mercy Street" draws on the work of the influential American poet Anne Sexton, who committed suicide in 1974. Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour wails a spectacular background vocal on "In Your Eyes." A Depression-era shot by the American photographer Dorothea Lange and Gabriel's concern about the miners on strike in England inspired Gabriel to write "Don't Give Up."

The cartoonish rocker "Big Time" harpoons the excesses of Eighties-style ambition, while the haunting "We Do What We're Told" derives from a university experiment in which test subjects were asked to administer what they believed were injury-inducing electric shocks to others and complied, in the majority of cases, rather than disobey the authority figure giving them instructions. Addressing Gabriel's recurrent theme of control — "One is ego dominant, and the other is ego submissive," he says — these two songs define extremes that must be avoided.

Given the album's thematic reach, why the seemingly offhand title? "I liked the shape and the fact that it didn't have too much meaning," Gabriel says in his elliptical way.

Rolling Stone's Original 1986 Review

13

Midnight Oil, ‘Diesel and Dust’

The next time you hear some rock star moaning about life on the road, think of this album and the remarkable tour that inspired it. In the summer of 1986 — which is actually winter down under — the Australian rockers and political activists of Midnight Oil packed amplifiers, sleeping bags and good intentions into a caravan of four-wheel-drive vehicles and embarked on a concert tour of remote Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory.

The members of the band ate grubs and wallaby meat and played on makeshift stages under chilly night skies for audiences huddled around campfires. They also witnessed firsthand the extreme poverty, cultural devastation and spiritual resilience of the island continent's original settlers. The Oils' awe and anger came pouring out in Diesel and Dust, an album caked with outback grit and charged with hard-rock moxie and melodic savvy. Contrasting images of Aboriginal desperation and determination with the ruins of white manifest destiny, Diesel and Dust is a site-specific document rooted in a basic theme of man's inhumanity to man.

The Oils' odyssey had started a couple of years earlier, when at the request of a teacher friend, they played to 300 Aborigines at a settlement near Darwin. "It made a greater impact on us than playing in New York . . . or to audiences of 30,000 anywhere," lead singer Peter Garrett told an A